Water is one of the most fundamental building blocks of life by human standards and is key to discovering alien life in other parts of the cosmos.
Scientists have long suspected Mars once hosted a lush and wet atmosphere with a landscape not too different from that of Earth’s.
Today, however, the planet is a harsh and inhospitable desert with a paper-thin atmosphere blasted by intense solar radiation.
The only signs of water present on Mars have been found in the form of ice caps around the freezing south pole.
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Life on Mars: Curiosity is drilling out samples of clay from Martian bedrock(Image: NASA)
But the presence of clay in Martian soil promises to update NASA’s understanding of Mars’s ancient past.
And the results of the rover’s drilling operation so far appear to be promising.
Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said: “Curiosity has been on the road for nearly seven years.
“Finally drilling at the clay-bearing unit is a major milestone in our journey up Mount Sharp.”
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According to NASA, the remote rover’s drill “chewed easily” through the Martian rock, suggesting the bedrock was much softer than expected.
The space agency said in a statement: “It was so soft, in fact, that the drill didn’t need to use its percussive technique, which is helpful for snagging samples from harder rock.
“This was the mission’s first sample obtained using only rotation of the drill bit.”
However, it is unlikely the drilling mission will provide any major breakthrough in the hunt for liquid water.
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Life on Mars: Clay samples could be proof of ancient water could boost hopes of finding ancient life(Image: NASA)
Instead, NASA expects to learn more about how ancient waters helped shaped the three-mile-tall (five kilometres) Mount Sharp.
Finally drilling at the clay-bearing unit is a major milestone
Jim Erickson, NASA
NASA said Curiosity has so far encountered clay minerals and mudstones at every step of its journey through Mars.
These rocks are believed to have formed in ancient lakebeds by settling river sediments some 3.5 billion years ago.
The space agency said: “As with water elsewhere on Mars, the lakes eventually dried up.”
And Ashwin Vasavada, a JPL Curiosity scientist said: “Each layer of this mountain is a puzzle piece. They each hold clues to a different era in Martian history.
“We’re excited to see what this first sample tells us about the ancient environment, especially about water.”
But what does all of this mean for the potential to find life on Mars?
Scientists widely agree life here on Earth started in water and it is water, which made life on Earth possible.
Life on Mars: The remote rover drilled into this soft bed of exposed Martian rock(Image: NASA)
And if scientists can prove the same conditions once existed on Mars, the probability simple, single-celled life evolved on Mars will skyrocket.
NASA said: “Whether the water is boiling hot or frozen, some sort of creature seems to thrive in it. Is it the same on other planets?
“If water once flowed on Mars, did life once thrive there too? Or, maybe there is still water on Mars, only it has gone underground.
“Could there be tiny life forms—like bacteria—on Mars even now?”