The number of places in our solar system that could have ever supported life now stands at 2!
The first, of course, is Earth, because … well, us. According to an awesomely exciting announcement today by NASA and JPL, we can add Gale Crater to that list!
What they found: Curiosity’s rock drill recently uncovered clay-like minerals below Gale Crater’s rusty red surface. These muddy minerals, pictured above, hint at a “Gray Mars” era, when Gale Crater and the ancient stream bed it holds could have been home to intermittent lakes. When the onboard instruments scanned the chemical makeup of the clay, it found carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur compounds, a group of elements known as “CHONPS” that have to exist in order to create life as we know it. Most importantly, the minerals were pretty neutral in pH and were found in forms that point to a possible chemical energy system (another key ingredient for life).
What remains unknown: This does NOT mean that anything ever actually lived there. But it is the first time that the ingredients for the evolution of microbial life, and the correct conditions to support it, have been directly observed beyond Earth. Mars still has water frozen at its poles, and once had quite a bit of water above and below the surface. The rover will poke around this site, called Yellowknife Bay, for a while longer before heading toward the mountainous center of Gale Crater. There, it will study the multiple layers of rock present on the hillside in order to piece together an even clearer picture of Gale Crater’s muddy, moist, maybe microbial Martian past.
Maybe. Just want to emphasize that part.