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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Life on Mars?

Researchers are considering the implications of what Cornell's Steve Squyres, principal investigator for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission, calls "one of the most significant" mission discoveries to date: silica-rich deposits uncovered in May by Spirit's lame front wheel that provide new evidence for a once-habitable environment in Gusev Crater.

Squyres and colleagues reported the silica deposits at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in early December in San Francisco.

On the other side of Mars, Spirit's still-healthy twin Opportunity is creeping slowly down the inside of Victoria Crater, where layers of exposed rock are confirming findings made at the much smaller Eagle and Endurance craters -- and where deeper layers could offer new insight into the planet's history.

Spirit, which has been driving backward since its right front wheel stopped turning in March 2006, was exploring near a plateau in the Gusev Crater known as Home Plate when scientists noticed that upturned soil in the wake of its dragging wheel appeared unusually bright.

Measurements by the rover's alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and mini-thermal emission spectrometer showed the soil to be about 90 percent amorphous silica -- a substance associated with life-supporting environments on Earth.

"This is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for formerly habitable conditions that we have found," said Squyres, Cornell's Goldwin Smith Professor of Planetary Science, in a Dec. 11 interview with the BBC.

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