Reporting Alex DeMetrick
GREENBELT, Md. (WJZ) — Conditions favorable to life. That was the data beamed back to earth from Mars. It was a historic find buried in the Martian past.
Alex DeMetrick reports it was made possible by people right here in Maryland.
It started with one of the most complicated landings ever attempted, let alone attempted on Mars. But the SUV-sized rover Curiosity made it in one piece last summer and has now paid off sooner than expected.
“It really was a pleasant surprise to hit pay dirt this early in the mission,” said Dr. Paul Mahaffy.
Pay dirt is an apt description. In what was a test of its ability to drill into Martian rock and analyze what’s inside of it, Curiosity made a historic find.
“What we found was this clay material, not the red, oxidized material we found elsewhere on Mars,” he said.
But it was this portable chemistry lab built in Maryland at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center that dug into that clay and unlocked the minerals that said it formed in water billions of years ago–possibly a lot of water.
“And maybe settled out of a standing body of water, such as a lake, and so we’re really excited because it’s the type of environment microbial life might have thrived in,” Mahaffy said.
“Probably if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it,” said Dr. John Grotzinger, California Institute of Technology.
While this mission is all about new discoveries, it’s actually the past that’s being probed.
“What we’re really doing is digging into the distant past. That doesn’t mean that we have found life but it means we’re looking for the types of environments that could have supported life,” Mahaffy said.
And Curiosity hasn’t even reached the best hunting grounds. Its real target for exploration is a mound inside the crater it landed in. That’s still months away.
The ultimate target for the rover may reveal what wasn’t found: the carbon building blocks that make living organisms possible.