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NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity May Have Identified Building Blocks of Life [VIDEO]

Apr 02, 2013 05:10 PM EDT
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It may not be moving very quickly, but NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is taking advantage of what few areas it has had access to, including Rocknest where it has possibly made a discovery of a potential energy source for life.

Called perchlorates, they are a class of salts that could be a building block for microorganisms on the planet and have been identified in the past by Mars-exploring robots in other regions of its surface.

"We know of microbes on the Earth that actually use perchlorate as an energy source," Archer told Space.com.

Furthermore, perchlorates, as the site explains, are "a sensitive marker of past climate and can lead to the formation of liquid brines under current conditions on the planet."

Should the windblown dust and sand prove to contain them, the discovery would be significant in proving that the material may in fact be distributed throughout the planet.

The possible discovery was first realized by Doug Archer, a scientist with the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate of NASA's Johnson Space Center located in Houston, Texas.

Archer's first clues that perchlorates were present came from four recently analyzed samples from Curiosity's location in Rocknest. The samples were harvested using the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument suite.

"When we heated this up, we saw a large oxygen release at the same time we saw the release of these chlorinated hydrocarbons," Archer explained at the 44th annual Lunary and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas,

All of this goes to validate discoveries by past robots, including Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, both Viking landers and the Mars Odyssey spacecraft -- all of whom detected chlorine in the planet's soil. 

However, Archer explained that he does not believe that all chlorine on Mars takes the form of perchlorates. He does believe, though, "that at least some of the chlorine at all of these locations is present as perchlorate."

What's more, there is a reason, as he further points out, to hope that that he could be wrong.

"Perchlorate makes organic detection very difficult because it release a lot of oxygen," he said. "So that's something that life detection and organic detection missions really have to worry about."

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