Skip to main content

Have a drink on Mars

By Jim Bell, Special to CNN
updated 3:52 PM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently encountered this iron meteorite, which NASA named "Lebanon." This find is similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers. The Curiosity rover set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images. NASA's Mars rover Curiosity recently encountered this iron meteorite, which NASA named "Lebanon." This find is similar in shape and luster to iron meteorites found on Mars by the previous generation of rovers. The Curiosity rover set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images.
HIDE CAPTION
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
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 .2a
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
>
>>
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 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT