NASA announced Thursday its Curiosity rover has found organic matter preserved on Mars, suggesting the red planet may have once been home to life.
“The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up,” said Curiosity’s project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said that with the new findings, “Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life.”
“I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the red planet,” he said.
The organic molecules are preserved in the bedrock in Gale Crater, which is believed to have once contain a shallow lake the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.
Space.com previously reported Curiosity is climbing the three-mile high Mt. Sharp in the center of Gale Crater, where it has begun drilling on the Martian surface for the first time in 18 months.
NASA describes the Mars Curiosity rover, launched Nov. 6, 2011, as the most technologically advanced rover ever built. It landed on Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, with the aim of determining whether Mars ever had the capacity to support microbial life.
The rover already has analyzed a rock sample collected by the vehicle in 2013 showing ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. It also detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by its drill.
Last month, NASA launched its InSight Mars lander, which is expected to reach the planet at the end of the year.
NASA has set a goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. Earlier this year, NASA announced a project to build robotic bees capable of flying on Mars.
The private space company SpaceX is planning test flights of its Mars spacecraft next year.
Restoring America’s ‘edge in space’
The National Space Council met for the first time in 25 years last October in an effort to return the United States to the forefront of space exploration.
Vice President Mike Pence, who chaired the council, said at the time that the U.S. will refocus its space program toward “human exploration and discovery,” beginning with a renewed American presence on the moon.
“American leadership in space will be assured,” Pence said at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. “We will return Americans to the moon … and build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”
Pence explained last October that America “seems to have lost our edge in space.”
“Rather than lead in space, too often we’ve chosen to drift and, as we learned 60 years ago, when we drift we fall behind,” he said.
“America must lead in space once again.”
Under President Obama, NASA’s administrator at the time, Charles Bolden, said in a 2010 interview with al-Jazeera that Obama had given him three charges, with perhaps the foremost being helping the Muslim world “feel good” about itself.
“One, he wanted me to help reinspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering,” Bolden said.
The then-NASA chief added: “It is a matter of trying to reach out and get the best of all worlds, if you will, and there is much to be gained by drawing in the contributions that are possible from the Muslim [nations].”
Earlier in 2010, Obama canceled the Constellation program for manned space flight, the successor to the Space Shuttle.
His administration announced the moon program would be scrapped in favor of a plan to reach Mars. But the cancellation of the manned program meant NASA would need international assistance to go to Mars, angering former astronauts, who issued a statement denouncing the “devastating” plan that “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”
Among the signatories of the statement were Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the first and last men to walk on the moon, and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell.
At the October council meeting, Pence pointed to space vessels on display at the museum that represent “a pinnacle in the history of man’s quest for knowledge and adventure.”
“Today, in the shadow of this history, we pledge to do what America has always done: We will push the boundaries of human knowledge,” he said.
“We will blaze new trails into that great frontier. And we will once again astonish the world as we boldly go to meet our future in the skies and in the stars.”