800px-PIA16726_-_Curiosity's_first_sample_drillingThe hole on the left is the first sample drilling hole dug by the rover on February 8, 2013, in a rock named “John Klein,” a mission manager who died in 2011.  It’s .63” wide and 2.5 inches deep.   The shallower hole, only .8” deep, on the right was dug two days later.  Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) obtained the image.     Photo credit NASA/JPL-caltech/MSSS

The ground-up rock sample Curiosity processed from the 2.5” hole revealed that like Earth, Mars has the chemical building blocks for life.   Specifically, the chemical analysis showed the presence of six elements needed for life:  hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus and water that was neither too acidic nor too salty.

From its greenish-gray coloration, scientists knew the material had been sheltered from the harsh radiation and oxidation processes on the Red Planet’s surface.

“If there was organic material there, it could have been preserved,” says David Blake, principal investigator for Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy, or CheMin, experiment.

The hunt for organic carbon is a difficult one because the same processes that create rock, destroy organics.  The planet’s thin atmosphere doesn’t protect organics from destructive ultraviolet and cosmic radiation, Additionally, Mars has an abundance of chemicals like perchlorates that consume organic molecules.

Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology says, “The search for organic carbon is an issue for this mission, and you want to do this as deliberately as possible.  You don’t just want to wander around and try stuff out. . . .   With the issue of habitability in the bag, we can undertake a more systematic search for a strong carbons signal.

“This is not a simple problem, but I think the mission is up to it, and we’re really excited to get started on that now.”

Though Grotzinger’s team is eager to drill another sample in the John Klein, they’ll have to wait until April when a current communications blockage between Earth and Mars will clear up as the sun moves to a more favorable position.

Source:  Discovery News, March 13, 2013


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