Were We Always Alone?

NASA Curiosity Rover Finds Ancient Streambed on Mars

NASAWater as we know it is the essence of life, for without it, almost no form of life could ever exist. Last Thursday on September 26, NASA’s Curiosity rover found evidence that a stream of water once coursed the now desolate Martian landscape as the rover scanned the surface.

According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, “There is earlier evidence for the presence of water on Mars, but this evidence -- images of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels -- is the first of its kind.”

The NASA scientists are closely examining the images of stones that are cemented into a layer of conglomerate rock. By examining the intrinsic qualities of the rocks such as their size and shape, the NASA scientists can get “clues to the speed and distance of a longago stream’s flow,” according to nasa.gov.

By analyzing the size of the rounded pebbles embedded in the slab, the NASA scientists estimated that water was flowing about a yard a second and was between ankle and hip deep, according to the New York Times.

“Plenty of papers have been written about channels on Mars with many different hypotheses about the flows in them. This is the first time we’re actually seeing watertransported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it,” said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich in a press release with NASA.

Curiosity found the streambed near the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside the Gale Cratert, one of many distinct craters on the Martian surface. Advanced satellite imaging of the surface showed an alluvial fan of material washed down from the northern rim of the crater.

An alluvial fan is a fan shaped deposit of material, known as alluvium, that is transported by water. The faster the water moves, according to the United States Geological Survey, the larger the pieces of rock pile up in the alluvium deposits.

The curved shape of certain stones in the conglomerate rock indicated that the rocks had undergone a long-distance transport from above the rim of the Gale Crater into the alluvial fan itself.

Noting the great abundance of channels that fed into the fan between the rim and the conglomerate, the scientists suggested on nasa.gov that the flow [of water] continued or repeated “not just once or for a few years,” but “over a long [period of] time.”

Brandon Hayes, a senior majoring in biochemistry, said, “The implications of Curiosity’s findings seem to be a definitive indication of a natural water-filled landscape once existing on Mars. This is pivotal in the future of not just science, NASA, or America but for all of mankind. It holds potential implications for life existing outside of our own planet and potentially in our own solar system!”

The NASA team, according to nasa.gov, plans on using Curiosity’s findings to explore the chemical composition of the variant materials that form the conglomerate rock. By doing so, the scientists hope to find characteristics of the wet environment that contributed to the alluvium in the first place and learn about the broader regional topography as well.

“A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in a press release with NASA.

“It is not our top choice as an environment for preservation of organics, though. We’re still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment.”

Momna Ayub, freshman chemistry major at the University, thinks “The myriad of implications stemming forth from this finding is tantamount to our ever advancing position in astroscience research.”

Dr. Rob Pastore, physics professor at the University said, “If you can’t go west, you’ve got to go up. By sending equipment there first, [the robots] can begin to establish the necessary conditions for a foundation so that when people do get there, they will have all the tools they need to begin working.”

“It is worth the money,” remarked Pastore, “There are a lot of people with a pioneering spirit waiting for the opportunity to go there.”

Following the discovery of the ancient streambed, the NASA team now hopes to discover remnants of organic molecules. Clay and sulfate that have already been detected from orbit can be good preservers of such carbon-based molecules that, along with water, are the potential ingredients for life, reported the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA.

With continual research, we may soon find more remnants that characterize life on the Red Planet and gain a better understanding of our place in the universe.