Curiosity has just finished analyzing the samples collected from its first drilling operation at the John Klein rock formation in Yellowknife Bay. And what it found confirms what scientists have suspected about the Red Planet for some time. Contained within grey the dust collected from the rock’s interior, the rover discovered some of the key chemical ingredients necessary for life to have thrived on early Mars billions of years ago.
After running the two aspirin-sized samples through its two analytical chemistry labs (SAM and CheMin), the Mars Science Laboratory was able to identify the presence of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus in the sample – all of which are essential constituents for life as we know it based on organic molecules.
What’s more, according to David Blake – the principal investigator for the CheMin instrument – a large portion of the sample was made up of clay minerals, which in itself is telling. The combined presence of these basic elements and abundant phyllosilicate clay minerals indicate that the area was once home to a fresh water environment, one where Martian microbes could once have thrived in the distant past.
By confirming this, the Curiosity Rover has officially met one of its most important research goals – proving that all the elements necessary for life to flourish were once present on Mars. And when you consider that the Curiosity team was not expecting to find evidence of phyllosilicate minerals in the Gale Crater, the find was an especial delight. Based on spectral observations conducted from orbit, phyllosilicates were only expected to be found in the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, which is Curiosity’s ultimate destination.
So what’s next for Curiosity? According to John Grotzinger, the Principal Investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity will remain in the Yellowknife Bay area for several additional weeks or months to fully characterize the area. The rover will also conduct at least one more drilling campaign to try and replicate the results, check for organic molecules and search for new discoveries.