On February 8, 2013, the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity collected its first rock sample of the Martian soil – the first time in history that a man-made robot to drilled into the surface of another planet. Chemical analysis of the rock powder seems to provide an answer to the fundamental question of whether this planet could ever have supported a habitable environment. According to the lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Michael Meyer, “From what we know now, the answer is yes.”
The rover had long been scouting out a drilling location on Mars that would be a likely candidate for previous habitation, finally deciding on a spot very near where it had earlier found an ancient streambed in the Gale Crater. In contrast to the highly oxidized and acidic material constituting much of the Martian surface, this rock sample is made of a fine-grained mudstone containing clay minerals, a product of interaction between fresh water and igneous rock. Analysis by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument aboard Curiosity revealed what principal investigator Paul Mahaffy calls an “impressive range of chemical ingredients” indicative of a “possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms.” This is certainly grounds for excitement about a once-habitable Red Planet and subsequent drillings will be conducted to confirm these results, though not until May.
This discovery not only demonstrates humanity’s need for the continuation and enhancement of exploration missions, but also humanity’s desire for such endeavors in space. Excitement over the question of habitation on Mars, and Curiosity’s answer, has surpassed the scientific community and permeated all circles of society and culture internationally. Humanity has seen what one robotic rover can discover when sent to Mars — the time has come to see what humanity can discover when sent to Mars.
The Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) is the world’s only independent, fully student-run, nonprofit organization for space advocacy. Founded in 1980 by students frustrated with the stagnation of NASA after Apollo, SEDS has inspired tens of thousands of students to pursue careers in science, engineering, and technology. SEDS supports a network of over 30 student chapters across the United States, hosts the largest student-run space conference in the world (SpaceVision), provides students opportunities to develop their leadership skills and professional networks, and inspires others through their involvement in space-related projects. Alumni can be found throughout the space industry in both traditional and “New Space” companies. For more information visit: http://www.seds.org.