Scratch water off NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity’s list of things to find in a two-year quest to learn if the planet most like Earth in the solar system could have supported microbial life.
Less than two months after touching down inside a giant impact basin near the planet’s equator, Curiosity has returned clear evidence of flowing water, scientists told reporters during a conference call Thursday.
The proof comes from analysis of pictures of a jagged slab of rock taken with a telephoto camera on the rover’s mast.
The rock, which resembles a jackhammered chunk of broken sidewalk, is flecked with rounded pieces of gravel — too big to have been carried by Martian winds.
Instead, Curiosity scientists are quite sure the gravel was deposited by a vigorously flowing stream, one that was between ankle- and knee-deep and likely flowed for thousands or even millions of years.
“We have now discovered evidence for water,” said lead scientist John Grotzinger. “This makes a great starting point for us to do more sophisticated studies.”
The rover is equipped with a variety of science instruments to analyze the chemistry and minerals of rocks and soils in its landing site, known as Gale Crater.
Though water is a key ingredient for life, it’s not the only one.
“This particular kind of rock may or may not be a good place to preserve those components that we associate with a habitable environment,” Grotzinger said.
The two-year, $2.5 billion Curiosity mission is NASA’s first astrobiology mission to Mars since the 1970s-era Viking probes. The goal is to assess if the Gale Crater landing site has or ever had the conditions to support and preserve life.
Image: Rounded stones in an outcrop of rock known as “Hottah” show the presence of past, vigorously flowing water. The rock is a tilted piece of the bed of an ancient stream. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS