Future direction of Martian ExplorationI love stuff like this. The basic jist here is that the successful-beyond-all-expectations Mars Spirit mission has ended, and one of the big discoveries was carbonate - a mineral which on earth is affiliated with living microbes!
By Dr. Adrian Brown - Planetary Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute
The last two months have witnessed several extremely important events with respect to future Mars Exploration. . . .
. . . I recently had the privilege of being the lead author on a scientific paper expanding on the carbonate discovery by Ehlmann et al. My co-authors were a group of NASA-sponsored researchers from around the US (SETI Institute, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, and Desert Research Institute) and in Brazil (Universidade Estadual de Campinas, São Paulo). . . . The primary message of the paper is that we have found a location on Mars which is very similar to an ancient part of the Earth that is known to have been inhabited. The best evidence of early life on Earth is found in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The Pilbara rocks are 3.5 billion years old and those rocks have wavy forms called "stromatolites" which indicate life was present at that time. Our research on these rocks using infrared spectroscopy gave us confidence we could recognize similar rocks on Mars.
Now, using an instrument called the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) run by Johns Hopkins University, we have investigated the Nili Fossae region further, and found intriguing similarities between the chemistry and mineralogy of the Pilbara and the Nili Fossae rocks. Both locations are similar in age; both contain abundant carbonate and accompanying minerals (such as talc). This indicates to my co-authors and I that they formed under similar conditions (in the presence of neutral, warm waters with lots of minerals to feed upon) meaning that when the rocks formed at Nili Fossae, about 3.9 billion years ago, this region on Mars was habitable.
The question that remains now is - we know Mars was habitable, but was it inhabited by life? The conditions were right, but did life take advantage of them? To borrow a metaphor, "The table was set, but did Martian microbes come to the party?"
I love stuff like this. Wouldn't it be awesome if we took all that money and technology we waste on weapons and used it to explore the universe? The Mars Rovers were extremely successful, capturing thousands of images of the red planet and spiriting them back here. Now that's a billion dollar project I can get behind.
Sigh. Not to get all jingoistic, but remember when America, as a nation, could actually DO SOMETHING?