NASA this week announced its Mars Exploration Rover Spirit
discovered a patch of land on Mars that revealed the possibility of a past
environment able to sustain microbial life.
While exploring a scientifically
important area of Mars last May, Spirit, while dragging a broken wheel on
the surface, discovered a patch of "nearly pure silica" found the
Home Plate section of Mars. Scientists believe it came from a
hot-spring or fumarole -- an environment which forces acidic steam to rise
through cracks on the planet's surface, also stripping mineral components while
leaving only silica behind.
Even though the rovers were not designed to evaluate possible signs of life,
each discovery like this one provides pieces to a complicated puzzle on
Mars. Researchers hope to have the opportunity to study this specific
location on Home Plate when new missions are launched to the Red Planet.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), scheduled to launch in September 2009, will
be NASA's first chance to head back to Home Plate.
"Whichever of those conditions produced it, this concentration of silica
is probably the most significant discovery by Spirit for revealing a habitable
niche that existed on Mars in the past," said Steve Squyres, principal
investigator for data gathered by the rovers.
Spirit now has only two weeks to safely arrive at a sun-facing slope on Home
Plate before strong dust storms paralyzes it for the winter.