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NASA: Past Habitability of Mars Is "In the Bag"


NASA is trumpeting news from the Curiosity rover that newly analyzed Martian rock gives evidence that the planet, billions of years ago, was hospitable to life. Alan Boyle at NBC reports:

Last month, the rover finally got a chance to drill into a Martian rock that was named John Klein, after a member of the mission team who died in 2011. Curiosity fed tablespoons of the ground-up gray powder into its two onboard chemical labs: CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) and SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars). The results were announced at Tuesday's news briefing.

Scientists said the powder contained the elemental ingredients of life -- including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon. More significantly, they found that clay minerals made up at least 20 percent of the sample. On Earth, these clays are produced when relatively fresh water reacts with igneous minerals such as olivine. The scientists also found calcium sulfate, which suggested that the water had a neutral or mildly alkaline balance.

Earlier NASA missions had found evidence that salty, acidic water was once present on Mars, but that extreme environment would have been challenging for today's Earth-type organisms. Curiosity's chemical analysis produced a different result: The water that was available during the formation of John Klein, billions of years ago, could have supported types of life commonly found on Earth.

"We have found a habitable environment which is so benign and supportive of life that probably if this water was around, and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it," [Caltech's John] Grotzinger said.

Grotzinger said Curiosity's scientists will focus on the systematic search for organic carbon now that they had "the issue of habitability in the bag."
"In the bag"? That sounds rather over-confident, given the challenges of chemical evolution, don't you think? Have a quick read of Casey Luskin's "Top Five Problems with Current Origin-of-Life Theories." And that's on a planet we know with certainty to have been capable of sustaining life.

Let's quiet down a bit, space agency. If your pre-reading age kids sometimes play with magnetic letters, they've got the "elemental ingredients" in hand (in the bag?) to produce a Shakespearean sonnet. But don't go home expecting to find "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" spelled out on the refrigerator door.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, "First Curiosity Drilling Sample in the Scoop."