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Evidence of water discovered on Mars; Curiosity finds minerals that leave scientists intrigued

Using its most sophisticated drilling tools, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover will soon analyze terrain on Mars where water may have once flowed in abundance.

The location in question is Yellowknife Bay, the Gale crater‘s nadir, and it contains minerals that need water in order to form. This is a promising find, as National Geographic notes NASA scientists have termed Yellowknife Bay “a virtual ‘candy store’ of scientific targets.”

The car-sized, six wheeled robot will begin its first drilling on Mars in this location. Expected to start this month, the Curiosity rover will drill five two-inch deep holes into the bedrock of Yellowknife Bay. The particles formed from the drilling will be delivered to the Curiosity team’s two on-board chemistry labs for analysis. High-resolution photos of sand and rocks taken by Curiosity’s Mastcam show signs of the presence of water in the past. Individual grains of sand have rounded edges from being “knocked around, busted up by some process,” said Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson and deputy principal investigator for the Mars Science Lab. Scientists have long suspected that Mars once was covered in water and that life may have migrated from the Red Planet to Earth.

The latest experiment comes less than six months after Curiosity rover touched ground on Mars on August 6 of last year. The rover has already brought evidence to the Curiosity team that rushing water once flowed near the Gale landing site. The samples collected from Yellowknife Bay will provide scientists on Earth with the most detailed picture of the past environment on Mars, and will likely add to the debate over past environmental conditions on Mars.

While Mars’s oceanic past is widely accepted, analysis through Curiosity will bring to light the history of water on the surface of Mars. Discovering where water was located–and whether it flowed in streams, soaked the ground, or resided in still lakes–will allow scientists to paint a better picture of how the solar system evolved and possibly where life originated.

The latest mission is, according to NASA, both the most exciting and most complex. Rover operators have spent the past several months preparing the rover’s equipment and testing out its various functions. Speaking Tuesday, NASA administrators say they are confident in their ability to solve issues as they arise and they expect the latest mission to go off without a hitch.

“We’re thrilled, and we can’t wait to get drilling,” said Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology.

The Gale crater was chosen by the Curiosity team as a landing site because satellite images suggested water-formed minerals lay at the base of nearby Mount Sharp: the robot’s primary destination. Mount Sharp is an 18,000-foot mountain, and with layers of sedimentary rocks at its base, offers scientists a prime location to study the history of water on Mars in this location through analyzing these rock layers. It is a fortunate coincidence that these minerals were also found a mere five miles from the mountain.  NASA says the shows evidence of “a different type of wet environment” than the dry streambed which was chosen as the landing site in August.

With about four more miles to go, Curiosity likely won’t reach Mount Sharp for a few more months. While analyzing the base of the mountain awaits a long journey, scientists will be able to analyze the rocks in the depths of the Gale crater in the very near future.