The report in SCIENCE is here. News story here. Short version: the Curiosity Mars Rover has found very strong evidence for a water-filled lake that lasted a minimum of thousands of years in Gale Crater (the landing site). Importantly, the lake’s PH (acidity) would have supported life. Even more exciting, there appears to be evidence for organic material–money quote from the news story:
When SAM heated the samples, the lakebed samples emitted more carbon dioxide than equal-size dust samples did, and their carbon dioxide came off at lower temperatures. Those observations suggested that heating the dust had simply decomposed naturally occurring, inorganic carbonate minerals, but that heating the lakebed samples had burned organic matter. Most telling, as carbon dioxide from the lakebed surged, the level of oxygen gas from decomposing perchlorates dropped. On seeing those data, one SAM team member reportedly declared, “This is combustion of organic carbon, folks.”
Yes, Mars seems to be potentially more benign for life that we had thought, but this important caveat:
The basic fact is that most in the news business do not understand (or at least, do not fully appreciate) the incremental, cumulative nature of modern science. It is seldom indeed when a single experiment or observation causes a scientific revolution. Moreover, it is equally seldom that a breakthough comes from one person or even one research team. Science is a complex, interdisciplinary effort. It makes progress, but slowly and in a manner that includes both leaps forward and (sometimes) backward.
As a scientist I can’t help but be overjoyed and amazed at the successful landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars early this morning. Regardless of what happens ahead, the ability to autonomously land an automobile-sized robot under the conditions of the “7 minutes of Terror” is a lasting human achievement worthy of the 21st century.
Here’s a good update on CNET. As you’ll recall, the last two rovers while incredibly successful, had constant issues with their solar batteries. On the other hand, this thing is powered by Plutonium. I sure hope they have an uneventful launch.