- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004


Mars was once soaked with water, enough to support life in a “good, habitable environment,” NASA scientists said yesterday after reviewing data from the Mars rover Opportunity, although they said the finding doesn’t prove that life existed.

“Opportunity has landed in an area of Mars where liquid water once drenched the surface,” Edward Weiler, associate NASA administrator for space science, said at a news conference. “This area would have been a good, habitable environment.”

A study of a fine, layered rock by the rover detected evidence of sulfates and other minerals that form in the presence of water. The finding does suggest that if life had been present when the rocks were formed, then the living conditions could have permitted an organism to flourish. The study, however, has found no direct evidence of living organisms.

“The ground would have been suitable for life,” said Steve Squyres, a Cornell University scientist and lead investigator for science instruments on Opportunity. “That doesn’t mean life was there. We don’t know that.”

Opportunity found “an astounding amount of salt,” said Benton C. Clark III, a member of the rover team. This was found on the surface and was confirmed when the rover bored into a rock outcropping with its abrasion tool.

“The only way you can form such large concentrations of salt is dissolve it in water and allow the water to evaporate,” Mr. Clark said.

NASA launched the Mars Exploration Rover mission to see whether “at least one part of Mars had a persistently wet environment that could possibly have been hospitable to life,” James Garvin, a lead National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist, said in a statement. “Today we have strong evidence for an exciting answer: Yes.”

Opportunity and its twin rover, Spirit, are controlled by a team of scientists working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Scientists there earlier in the week said they had found exciting results from the work of Opportunity. Details were not immediately available.

Mr. Squyres said the rover’s study of formations near its landing site show that liquid water once flowed there, changing the chemistry and composition of the rocks.

Asked how long ago water might have existed on Mars, Mr. Squyres said, “It’s very, very difficult to infer age simply by looking at pictures, by measuring this kind of composition. What you really need is samples brought back.” He did say that whatever process produced the water, “There’s nothing like this going on on Mars today.”

The twin rovers now on Mars will not return to Earth, but will remain on the Red Planet after they stop functioning. President Bush has proposed sending manned flights to the moon and Mars.

Opportunity landed five weeks ago near an exposed bedrock embedded in the wall of a small crater.

The rover conducted a chemical analysis of the outcrop, including a rock named El Capitan by scientists, and found a concentration of sulfur rich in magnesium, iron and other sulfate salts. Opportunity’s instrument also detected jarosite, an iron sulfate mineral.

On Earth, such minerals would have formed in water. The presence of jarosite suggests an acid-rich lake or hot-springs environment, scientists said.

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