You certainly didn’t hear it here first: today NASA, at a press briefing, announced that minerals analyzed by the Curiosity rover indicate that life might, in the galactic past, have survived on Mars. The rover’s been poking around an ancient network of stream channels descending from the rim of Gale crater since September of last year; now, after drilling into the sedimentary bedrock nearby, it’s hit on a treasure trove of life-supporting minerals: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and nitrogen. These mineral findings are really just icing on the cake, as the geological clues–fine-grained mudstone streaked with nodules and veins, the telltale drifting forms of a past sometimes wet–already spoke volumes.
To answer your question, David Bowie, no, this doesn’t mean that Curiosity scientists found life on Mars–only conditions suitable for it to exist. This is only the discovery of a setting, the stage for a primeval drama. But it’s still impressive. Mars is a huge planet and the Curiosity rover is a small, plodding thing, which cuts an unassuming profile as it diligently sifts through the dust. It moves gingerly across the landscape. It is a laborious little laboratory, and Mars is a huge jarring vista of red under a harsh, dark sky.
These discoveries, although tantalizingly vague, are testament to the power of properly applied technology: against all odds, on a distant planet we can only dream of visiting ourselves, Curiosity’s fiercely economical little corral of tools, leveraged in just the right manner, can reveal magnitudes. Pretty cool.
John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist from the California Institute of Technology, celebrates the discovery of an ancient environment so benign that “probably if this water was around and you had been there, you would have been able to drink it.” It’s a satisfying mental image: instead of a souped-up golf cart preciously vaporizing pellets of rock, imagine scooping handfuls of Martian water from streams long since run dry. Your thirst slaked, you brush the red dust from your knees and stand to see the Earth, a significant blue dot on the horizon.