Skip to main content

Have a drink on Mars

By Jim Bell, Special to CNN
updated 3:52 PM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
Curiosity, NASA's Mars rover used the equivalent of a dust broom on its robotic arm to sweep away reddish, oxidized dust, revealing this gray patch of rock that resembles a paving stone. The rock is called "Bonanza King" and the rover team wants to use it as the rover's fourth drilling target, if it passes an evaluation by engineers. The photo was taken August 17, 2014, using the rover's mast camera, or Mastcam. Click through to see more of its images. Curiosity, NASA's Mars rover used the equivalent of a dust broom on its robotic arm to sweep away reddish, oxidized dust, revealing this gray patch of rock that resembles a paving stone. The rock is called "Bonanza King" and the rover team wants to use it as the rover's fourth drilling target, if it passes an evaluation by engineers. The photo was taken August 17, 2014, using the rover's mast camera, or Mastcam. Click through to see more of its images.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NASA announced on Tuesday that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes
  • Jim Bell: This is quite literally a watershed moment in the history of solar system exploration
  • He says it is the first time that we've discovered evidence for fresh water on another planet
  • Bell: Curiosity rover is not done with its mission; it may find even more interesting things

Editor's note: Jim Bell is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and a member of the NASA Curiosity Mars rover camera team. He is the president of The Planetary Society and author of "Postcards from Mars," "Mars-3D," and "The Space Book."

(CNN) -- An announcement on Tuesday marked, quite literally, a watershed moment in the history of solar system exploration. NASA scientists said an analysis of drilled rock samples collected by the Curiosity rover shows that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

It is the first time that we've discovered actual evidence for fresh water on another planet.

We've been down this watery path before -- sort of. Back in 2004, NASA's Opportunity rover found evidence of ancient water on Mars.

For a place to be habitable by life as we know it, it has to have liquid water, heat sources like volcanoes or impact craters, and carbon-bearing organic molecules.

NASA: Yes, Mars could have hosted life

Jim Bell
Jim Bell

Mars had abundant volcanoes and impacts early on, and Opportunity rover scientists finally found smoking gun evidence for the ancient liquid water. What that rover couldn't tell us was whether Mars had organic molecules. But organic molecules get delivered to planets all the time from impacts by small and large asteroids and comets (like February's fireball impact above Chelyabinsk, Russia), providing the last key ingredient for habitability. That argument sealed the deal back in 2004: Mars was habitable. Cool!

But the evidence we found in the rocks back then prescribed a very specific kind of habitable environment, and one that many biologists think is quite rare and special. The rocks contained abundant sulfur minerals, implying that the water in which they formed contained sulfuric acid.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



On Earth there are micro-organisms that can live, and even thrive, in acidic water, even battery acid. But these are rare and specialized niche organisms, what biologists call "extremophiles," because they love extreme environmental conditions. Still, extreme conditions or not, it meant that Mars could have been habitable for some forms of life.

Now fast-forward to 2013, where in the past few weeks the Curiosity rover has been drilling into some different rocks half a planet away, inside a deep basin formed by the Gale impact crater. Armed with more sophisticated analysis tools than earlier rover teams, Curiosity scientists have been able to conclusively find the first on-the-ground evidence for the presence of abundant clay minerals within those drilled rocks.

Clays are water-loving materials (just ask any friends who make pottery), sometimes forming from the interaction of water and different kinds of precursor volcanic rocks, and holding much of that water within their mineral structures.

But here's the catch: Clay minerals are easily dissolved in acidic water. Because they are preserved in the Gale crater still today, it implies that the water there had relatively little acidity -- that is, it was fresh water, like the water you'd find in most ponds or lakes on Earth today.

Indeed, there's geologic evidence from the rover and from NASA's Mars orbiters that there may once have been a large lake and streams within the basin that Curiosity is driving around in now.

And there's more to be excited about.

Micro-organisms on Earth are much more common in fresh water than acidic water, and so rather than Mars just having been a potential haven for some extreme forms of life, Curiosity's discovery means that Mars had -- and still preserves evidence of -- environments that were habitable for an enormous variety of micro-organisms that thrive on our own planet.

It seems as though NASA or other space agencies "rediscover" water on Mars every few years, so maybe this latest announcement will be regarded as just more of the same. But this time it's different -- really! The stakes have just been raised a notch: Not only is there another planet right next door in our own solar system that had habitable environments on its surface long ago, but there appear to have been common and recognizable -- perhaps even Earthlike -- environments on Mars. That's the big news coming out of this latest discovery from NASA's Mars rovers.

Curiosity is only about a quarter of the way through its primary mission, so there's lots of time to search for more watery evidence, as well as for any elusive associated organic molecules, which have yet to be found. Because of abundant solar ultraviolet radiation at the surface, organic molecules might not be preserved as well as clay minerals. But Curiosity has the tools, and the brainpower back here on Earth, to find out.

The implications of discovering evidence for fresh water are exciting for macro-organisms as well: Rover chief scientist John Grotzinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has speculated that we would have been able to drink that ancient water, had we been there some 2, 3, or 4 billion years ago to witness glorious Lake Gale.

Imagine that. Let's go back in time -- how would you like your water? Sparkling, fresh, or Martian?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jim Bell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT