Rover proves Mars was once habitable
A discovery by the Mars rover has led scientists to believe the Red Planet could once have supported life.
Last month, 355,600,000 kilometres away, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – or Curiosity – drilled into the planet's bedrock for the first time to help determine if Mars has ever supported an environment suitable for microbial life.
Nasa has now said the data – analysed by scientists at the University of Leicester – showed evidence of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulphur, phosphorous and carbon.
These are some of the key chemical ingredients for supporting microbes.
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The one-ton robot also uncovered clay which could only have been formed in water.
"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for Nasa's Mars exploration program.
"From what we know now, the answer is yes."
Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator working with the rover's instruments, said: "The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive.
"It suggests pairings such as sulphates and sulphides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for microorganisms."
Yellowknife Bay, where Curiosity found evidence of clay, is believed to be part of an ancient river system or lake bed. Scientists think Mars may once have had rivers and oceans.
It still has frozen water at its poles.
However, about four billion years ago, its protective magnetic field disappeared and the liquid water vaporised.
The University of Leicester's Dr John Bridges, who is part of the Nasa mission, said: "We haven't found life.
"What we have found is a habitable environment, with the deposition of fine-grained sediments from water.
"However, we don't have any evidence the habitable environment was inhabited."
Nasa's $2.5 billion (£1.67 billion) MSL project has been investigating an area within Gale Crater since it landed seven months ago.
The plan now is to carry out more tests in Yellowknife Bay before beginning a long drive to Gale Crater's central mound, Mount Sharp.
There, the rover will investigate a stack of exposed layers where clay and sulphate minerals have been identified from orbit.
Scientists believe this may add information about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.
John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist, said: "We have characterised a very ancient but strangely new 'grey Mars', where conditions once were favourable for life.
"Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and, as a team, we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months to come."
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