After nine years and 22 miles trekking around the surface of Mars, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is beginning to explore a region with clays, minerals which form in the presence of water, potentially providing evidence of the past habitability of the red planet.
While both Opportunity and its sister rover Spirit uncovered clear evidence for past water on Mars, the chemistry of the water was highly acidic, similar to battery acid, and not very friendly to life.
The rovers landed on opposite sides of Mars in January 2004 for what was expected to be 90-day missions to look for the chemical fingerprints of water in rocks and soil. Spirit succumbed to the harsh conditions on Mars in 2010.
Opportunity in November completed a survey of an outcrop of rock that orbital probes revealed contains clay deposits.
“These clay minerals point toward a neutral chemistry of water you could drink. That’s a different world,” rover lead scientist Steve Squyres told Discovery News.
The area is older than other sites studied by the rovers, correlating to a time when Mars was believed to be warmer and wetter than it is today.
“This is our first glimpse ever at conditions on ancient Mars that clearly shows us a chemistry that would have been suitable for life,” Squyres said.
Image: A computer-generated image of Opportunity’s wheel on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech