Skip to main content

Have a drink on Mars

By Jim Bell, Special to CNN
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
The Mars rover Curiosity does a test drill on a rock dubbed "Bonanza King" to see if it would be a good place to dig deeper and take a sample. But after the rock shifted, the test was stopped. The NASA rover has now spent two years on the red planet. Curiosity set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images. The Mars rover Curiosity does a test drill on a rock dubbed "Bonanza King" to see if it would be a good place to dig deeper and take a sample. But after the rock shifted, the test was stopped. The NASA rover has now spent two years on the red planet. Curiosity set off from Earth in November 2011 and landed nearly nine months later -- 99 million miles away. Click through to see more of its images.
HIDE CAPTION
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
Mars rover Curiosity
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NASA announced on Tuesday that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes
  • Jim Bell: This is quite literally a watershed moment in the history of solar system exploration
  • He says it is the first time that we've discovered evidence for fresh water on another planet
  • Bell: Curiosity rover is not done with its mission; it may find even more interesting things

Editor's note: Jim Bell is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and a member of the NASA Curiosity Mars rover camera team. He is the president of The Planetary Society and author of "Postcards from Mars," "Mars-3D," and "The Space Book."

(CNN) -- An announcement on Tuesday marked, quite literally, a watershed moment in the history of solar system exploration. NASA scientists said an analysis of drilled rock samples collected by the Curiosity rover shows that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

It is the first time that we've discovered actual evidence for fresh water on another planet.

We've been down this watery path before -- sort of. Back in 2004, NASA's Opportunity rover found evidence of ancient water on Mars.

For a place to be habitable by life as we know it, it has to have liquid water, heat sources like volcanoes or impact craters, and carbon-bearing organic molecules.

NASA: Yes, Mars could have hosted life

Jim Bell
Jim Bell

Mars had abundant volcanoes and impacts early on, and Opportunity rover scientists finally found smoking gun evidence for the ancient liquid water. What that rover couldn't tell us was whether Mars had organic molecules. But organic molecules get delivered to planets all the time from impacts by small and large asteroids and comets (like February's fireball impact above Chelyabinsk, Russia), providing the last key ingredient for habitability. That argument sealed the deal back in 2004: Mars was habitable. Cool!

But the evidence we found in the rocks back then prescribed a very specific kind of habitable environment, and one that many biologists think is quite rare and special. The rocks contained abundant sulfur minerals, implying that the water in which they formed contained sulfuric acid.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



On Earth there are micro-organisms that can live, and even thrive, in acidic water, even battery acid. But these are rare and specialized niche organisms, what biologists call "extremophiles," because they love extreme environmental conditions. Still, extreme conditions or not, it meant that Mars could have been habitable for some forms of life.

Now fast-forward to 2013, where in the past few weeks the Curiosity rover has been drilling into some different rocks half a planet away, inside a deep basin formed by the Gale impact crater. Armed with more sophisticated analysis tools than earlier rover teams, Curiosity scientists have been able to conclusively find the first on-the-ground evidence for the presence of abundant clay minerals within those drilled rocks.

Clays are water-loving materials (just ask any friends who make pottery), sometimes forming from the interaction of water and different kinds of precursor volcanic rocks, and holding much of that water within their mineral structures.

But here's the catch: Clay minerals are easily dissolved in acidic water. Because they are preserved in the Gale crater still today, it implies that the water there had relatively little acidity -- that is, it was fresh water, like the water you'd find in most ponds or lakes on Earth today.

Indeed, there's geologic evidence from the rover and from NASA's Mars orbiters that there may once have been a large lake and streams within the basin that Curiosity is driving around in now.

And there's more to be excited about.

Micro-organisms on Earth are much more common in fresh water than acidic water, and so rather than Mars just having been a potential haven for some extreme forms of life, Curiosity's discovery means that Mars had -- and still preserves evidence of -- environments that were habitable for an enormous variety of micro-organisms that thrive on our own planet.

It seems as though NASA or other space agencies "rediscover" water on Mars every few years, so maybe this latest announcement will be regarded as just more of the same. But this time it's different -- really! The stakes have just been raised a notch: Not only is there another planet right next door in our own solar system that had habitable environments on its surface long ago, but there appear to have been common and recognizable -- perhaps even Earthlike -- environments on Mars. That's the big news coming out of this latest discovery from NASA's Mars rovers.

Curiosity is only about a quarter of the way through its primary mission, so there's lots of time to search for more watery evidence, as well as for any elusive associated organic molecules, which have yet to be found. Because of abundant solar ultraviolet radiation at the surface, organic molecules might not be preserved as well as clay minerals. But Curiosity has the tools, and the brainpower back here on Earth, to find out.

The implications of discovering evidence for fresh water are exciting for macro-organisms as well: Rover chief scientist John Grotzinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has speculated that we would have been able to drink that ancient water, had we been there some 2, 3, or 4 billion years ago to witness glorious Lake Gale.

Imagine that. Let's go back in time -- how would you like your water? Sparkling, fresh, or Martian?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jim Bell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT