NASA’s Curiosity Rover May Have Found Fossils on Mars

Mars Rover exploring on the planet surface.

For years, theorists have suggested that Mars once contained the necessary requirements to support life. Now, NASA’s Curiosity rover may have finally found indication of this from images showing what appear to be fossilized microbial structures.

Over the past five and a half years, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been mapping and imaging the Martian surface to gain more insight on the dusty planet. In addition to snapping pictures, the nomadic vehicle has been searching for signs of water, while also determining the viability for human colonization.

Scientists know that water once flowed on Mars and have been on a quest to discover whether it still does to this day. Aside from ice caps on the Martian poles, evidence of water in Mars’ past can be seen in dried lake beds, gullies, and what was once a large ocean in the planet’s topography.

In recent images of the Gillespie Lake outcrop, in the Yellowknife Bay area, Curiosity sent back pictures of small stick-like formations in a segment of sedimentary rock. To the untrained eye these formations might not appear to be much, but to a microbiologist who has studied microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS), the pictures seem to have some profound implications.

 

via cnet.com

 

Nora Noffke of Old Dominion University in Virgina meticulously compared the photo to instances of MISS on Earth and published a paper that has intrigued scientists at NASA. Though she’s hesitant to make any definitive claims, her paper provides some of the best evidence to date for indications of past lifeforms.

The stick-shaped markings aren’t actually considered to be fossils of microorganisms themselves, but rather fossils of their imprints.

Some have contested that these tubular markings are more likely crystals, rather than the footprint of microorganisms. In either case, the finding shows that the area once consisted of a body of water that had the elements needed to support life.

NASA is planning on sending another rover to Mars in 2020 that is nearly identical to Curiosity, with the goal of strictly searching for signs of previous life. Once collected, samples will be sent back to Earth from a small rocket deployed from the rover.

Scientists have recently found other signs of life on the red planet, including fluctuating levels of methane in the atmosphere. Some have proposed the idea that this gas may be coming from life below the surface.

On Earth, methane is produced from bacteria, primarily in the stomachs of animals and humans. Could there be bacteria, or life containing bacteria, producing that methane below the Martian surface?



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NASA Developing Robotic Bees to Collect Samples, Map Mars Surface

NASA’s Mars rovers have gathered a lot of exciting data and photographs, but they’re moving at a snail’s pace. So how will it expedite that process? Robotic bees.

The space agency is developing bee-sized robots to map the surface of Mars and collect samples from the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists hope these insectoids will be more mobile and agile than traditional rovers.

The program, called “Marsbees,” is contracting researchers from the U.S. and Japan to build prototypes of winged robots, capable of swarming the red planet and collecting data, before returning to a rover to recharge.

 

Image courtesy uah.edu

 

One of the biggest obstacles engineers face is designing a robot that can fly in Mars’ unique climate. The red planet’s atmosphere can be pretty hostile with dust storms, low thermal inertia, and periodic ice ages. These bees will inevitably face some extreme weather conditions.

But there is one factor that may make the mission easier –  Mars’ gravitational pull is about a third of Earth’s, which could prove to be more conducive to flight.

NASA’s website envisions the robots as roughly the size of a bee, but with larger, cicada-sized wings. Researchers imagine the bees will be capable of working independently or in teams to collect samples.

The program funding the project is called the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, or NIAC, which fosters science fiction concepts with the potential for realistic applications.

The aerial bots would primarily search for methane emissions from below the planet’s surface – an indication of subterranean Martian life. NASA’s Curiosity rover previously discovered low levels of the gas, encouraging scientists to explore further.

But the technology for this apian concept doesn’t have a lot of promising precedent. Several years ago, DARPA built a hummingbird-inspired drone, with a multi-million-dollar budget. Researchers engineered it to fly steadily, but the winged machine would likely struggle in the Martian environment.

Engineers working on the Marsbees prototype will test their robots in a vacuum chamber, with conditions to simulate the climate and air density on Mars. The group is receiving just $125,000 over the course of nine months to fund their prototype, before it will be tested for feasibility by NASA. If it passes preliminary tests, it will then be eligible for a second round of funding.

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