Was Mars a water-rich planet once upon a time? The latest discovery of what appears to be clay-rich rock offers abundant evidence that water on Mars was present some three and half billion years ago, and perhaps life existed on Red Planet, according to NASA Scientists.
The clay-rich rock named, Esperance, was examined by the Mars rover Opportunity. The Opportunity is an older NASA spacecraft still operating on the planet. NASA scientists say there are abundant elements of aluminum, calcium and magnesium in Esperance. They say that the rich minerals could have formed from ample water running over volcanic rocks.
“This is powerful evidence that water interacted with this rock and changed its chemistry, changed its mineralogy in a dramatic way,” Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator in the project said.
Scientists named the newly discovered rock, Esperance, after a gold mine in French Guiana where a project member had done research. According to scientists, the clays in Esperance were formed in neutral waters.
“This is water you could drink,” Dr. Squyres said. “This is water that was probably much more favorable in its chemistry, in its pH, in its level of acidity, for things like prebiotic chemistry, the kind of chemistry that could lead to the origin of life.”
Dr. Squyres last year had talked about a “light-colored fine-grained rock” in same area where Esperance, was found. These rocks had a composition typical of most Martian rocks. “Esperance contains a much higher concentration of clays,” Dr. Squyres said.
The rover, Opportunity, made landing on Mars in January 2004 and was supposed to have a short life span of only three months. Its mission was to find signs of water on the Martian Red Planet.
But it has outlived its planned mission and continues to gather powerful data. In almost 10 years on Mars, the Opportunity had already found many signs of flowing water in Mars’s ancient past. But the water it found was acidic and not conducive to supporting life.
“In fact, what Opportunity has mostly discovered evidence for in the past was sulfuric acid on Mars,” Dr. Squyres said.
“Battery acid kind of numbers,” he added. “And that’s a challenging place for life.”
Last year, the Opportunity arrived at a 14-mile-wide crater named Endeavour on Mars and made the exciting finding of the clay-rich rock.
Because of its limited instruments, the rover, Opportunity, is constrained in its capabilities to look for carbon-based molecules that could be the building blocks of life on Mars. The Curiosity, which landed on another part of Mars, is on the other hand, larger and has a more advanced chemistry laboratory.
Asked by reporters if he wished that the Opportunity had the same capabilities, Dr Squyres said, “Absolutely, no question about it. This is a treasure trove.”
The Opportunity will now journey to a 180-foot hill called Solander Point, less than a mile away. According to scientists, “the slope will allow the rover to tilt its fixed solar panels northward to the Sun as winter approaches.” Outcrops at Solander Point could reveal more clay-rich rocks on Mars.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on Mars, the Curiosity is about complete its work on rocks that have shown evidence of life in the planet’s ancient history.
Curiosity will then journey to an 18,000-foot mountain where rocks near the base are believed to hold clay minerals. That five-mile trip is expected to take about a year.
By Perviz Walji