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March 17, 2013

Mars rover shows planet could have supported life

(Continued)

NASA rovers Opportunity and Spirit — before it fell silent — also uncovered evidence of a wet Martian past elsewhere on the planet, but scientists think the water would have been too acidic for microbes.

The ancient water at Curiosity’s pit stop — possibly a former lake bed — appears to be neutral and not too salty. It previously found a hint of the site’s watery past — an old streambed that the six-wheel rover crossed to get to the flat bedrock.

Curiosity has yet to turn up evidence of complex carbon compounds, fundamental to all living things. Scientists said a priority is to search for a place where organics might be preserved.

The drilled rock isn’t far from Curiosity’s landing spot in Gale Crater; the rover is ultimately headed to a mountain in the crater’s middle. Images from space spied signs of clay layers at the base of the mountain — a good spot to hunt for the elusive organics.

It has been slow going as engineers learn to handle the rover, which is far more tech-savvy than anything that has landed before on Earth’s planetary neighbor.

Over the years, Mars spacecraft in orbit and on the surface have beamed back a wealth of information about the planet’s geology. Scientists have also been able to study rocks from Mars that have occasionally landed on Earth.

The latest news comes during a lull in the two-year, $2.5 billion mission. Curiosity has been prevented from doing science experiments as engineers troubleshoot a computer problem.

Scientists still plan to drive toward the mountain, but not until Curiosity drills into another rock at its current location. Since flight controllers on Earth will be out of touch with Mars spacecraft for most of next month due to a planetary alignment, the second drilling won’t get under way until May.

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