Cold as hell and no place to raise your kids, the surface of Mars today is a quite inhospitable place for any forms of life we know of. But that wasn’t always the case – billions of years ago Mars may have been a lot more like Earth, with a magnetic field, a much denser atmosphere, lakes and even an ocean on its surface where life could have not just developed but thrived. And in Curiosity’s hunt for any remaining evidence of that ancient utopia, the rover has identified a key ingredient: nitrates contained within the surface rocks of Gale Crater.
Although it’s not thought that the nitrates were created by organisms currently living on Mars it’s yet another indication that the environment of Gale Crater was once a place where life could have existed, joining the rover’s previous discoveries of traces of water and sediment deposited by ancient rivers.
“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of the research team.
Here’s a “selfie” of NASA’s Curiosity rover, made from about 20 images acquired by its MAHLI instrument on mission sol 868 (January 14, 2015). I used Photoshop to stitch the raw images together and then enhanced the contrast and detail with a bit of HDR effect. (There’s one spot behind the rover’s RTG where an image wasn’t available.)
How did Curiosity take this image (well, these images) you ask?
Every now and then I get unexpectedly caught up in a project that I originally intended to be a quick just-for-fun thing and ends up taking an hour and a half of my time (usually long after I should have gone to bed.) This was one of those.
Made up of 28 raw images acquired by Curiosity’s right Mastcam camera, this is a panorama of the rover’s surroundings in Gale Crater on mission Sol 844 – December 21, 2014 our time. The colors are what one would see in ambient Mars lighting… for a more Earth-like view, see below:
While it’s not quite the “smoking gun” for evidence of life on Mars, the recent announcement of a detection of spiking methane levels by NASA’s Curiosity rover has certainly caught everyone’s attention – especially since the activity of microbes is one possible source for the presence of the compound, which has already been detected by spacecraft in orbit around Mars.
“This temporary increase in methane – sharply up and then back down – tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, a member of the Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”
Still, biological in origin or not, these findings are yet another milestone for the MSL mission.
“We have had a major discovery. We have found organics on Mars.”
– John Grotzinger, Curiosity lead scientist
If you’re a heavy metal fan then you’ll love this: this shiny, lumpy rock spotted by NASA’s Curiosity rover is made mostly of iron — and came from outer space! Dubbed “Lebanon” it’s a stony iron meteorite, similar to ones found in years past by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but is considerably larger than any of the ones they came across. In fact, at 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide, Lebanon is the biggest meteorite ever discovered on Mars!
Sol 669 is here (well, there… on Mars that is…) and that marks the one full year anniversary of Curiosity’s mission exploring Gale Crater! Wait, you say, didn’t Curiosity land on Mars in August of 2012? Shouldn’t we still be approaching the TWO-year anniversary of the MSL mission? Well, yes, here on Earth, but on Mars a year is 1.8808 Earth-years long — that’s 686.9 Earth days to a single Martian year! So from landing day August 5 (August 6 UTC) 2012, 686.9 days Earth days (i.e., one Martian year) later is June 24, 2014 (which it is at the time of this writing, UTC) and thus:
Happy Mars Anniversary, Curiosity!