‘Curiosity’s’ Trek Up Mars’ Aeolis Mons: The Search for Ancient Life




The Mars Curiosity science mission goal is to look for chemical evidence of ancient life preserved within exposures near the base of a five-kilometers high mound of layered materials at the center of Gale crater. The first images in from the rover’s navigation cameras suggested one possibility for signs of microbial life when they revealed whitish linear features in a shallow trench scoured out by the blast of the landing system’s retrorockets. The lines, says John Grotziner, project manager of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, could be fractures filled with water-altered minerals — key targets for exploration in the mission’s goal of assessing whether ancient Mars could have supported life.

Only several hundred meters away is a a five-meter-high slope, or scarp, that separates the dusty desert pavement on which the rover landed from the more hummocky terrain that lies beyond, a second option in the search for ancient signs of life. The scarp marks the edge of materials deposited at the foot of an alluvial fan, a sedimentary feature left behind from floods that once spilled down from the rim of Gale Crater and might reveal evidence of an ancient lake.

But the Curiosity’s ultimate destination is the 5.5-kilometre-high Aeolis Mons, dubbed Mount Sharp (image above) by the science team. Data from orbiting spacecraft suggest that deposits on the mountain’s lower shoulders were formed in water, which represent the science team’s optimal chance of working out whether microbes could have lived on Mars billions of years ago.

"This may be one of the thickest exposed sections of layered sedimentary rocks in the solar system," said Joy Crisp, MSL Deputy Project Scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The rock record preserved in those layers holds stories that are billions of years old — stories about whether, when, and for how long Mars might have been habitable."

The red planet, says Robert Zubrin, founder of The Mars Society, is essentially a Rosetta stone for determining the prevalence and diversity of life in the universe.

"If life will develop wherever it has a decent planet, it means that the universe is filled with life," Zubrin says, "And if life is everywhere, it means intelligence is everywhere. It means we're living in an inhabited universe. This is something that thinking men and women have wondered about for thousands of years." There's a good chance Curosity and the MarsScience Lab will finally answer.



The Daily Galaxy via http://www.nature.com/news/mars-scientists-await-feast-of-data-1.11169

Image credit: http://marsjournal.org/contents/2010/0004/


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