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March 16, 2013

Mars was habitable, but no sign of inhabitants

By drilling into Mars for the first time and analyzing a martian rock in unprecedented detail, Curiosity team members have shown that eons ago, microorganisms could have lived on Mars. At a spot on the floor of Gale crater-the site the rover has been studying since landing on Mars last August -- there was mud long-wetted by benign waters, a ready supply of the essential elements of life as we know it, and energy enough to power life. The search for the remains of ancient life was not so lucky.

Curiosity found "all the things we were really hoping for in a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at headquarters in Washington. Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena made it a bit more personal: "We have found a habitable environment so benign that if you were on the planet when water was around, you would have been able to drink it."

The news of certain martian habitability came Tuesday at a Curiosity press conference at NASA headquarters. Orbiting spacecraft had imaged lots of places where early in Mars history there was plenty of water-river channels and crater lakes for sure, maybe even an ocean-and some of those once-watery locales even had signs of clay. Rock turns into clay only after long exposure to water of more or less neutral pH. In fact, the Opportunity rover is still roaming across a plain of once water-soaked rock. But it turned out to be rotted by highly acidic brine-not a nice place for life.

The sediment that formed the rock outcrop drilled by Curiosity proved to have been far more hospitable, Curiosity team members reported at the press conference. For starters, geologists say that it could have been mud on the floor of a lake nestled on the crater floor 3 billion years or more ago, about the time fossil life first appeared on Earth. Curiosity's Chemistry and Mineralogy x-ray instrument showed that the rock is 20% to 30% clay. And the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument package detected no chemical signs of high acidity or brines. Concentrated brines can suck the water out of any microbes.

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  • VIDEO: Moose charges snowmobile, flees after warning shot

    While snowmobiling in New England, Bob and Janis Powell of Maine were charged by a moose and caught the entire attack on camera.

    April 21, 2014

  • Do your genes make you procrastinate?

    Procrastinators, in my experience, like nothing better than explaining away their procrastination: General busyness, fear of failure, and simple laziness are just a handful of the excuses and theories often tossed around. Now researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have added another option to the list: genetics.

    April 21, 2014

  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 4.44.15 PM.png Paint, doodle and sketch: 3 apps for art lovers

    In the absence of a palette of watercolors and a sketchpad, these three apps can fill in as your art supplies of choice.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • touch.jpg Divorce is on the rise, and it's the baby boomers' fault

    A new paper from demographers at the University of Minnesota found that the age-standardized divorce rate has actually risen by an astonishing 40 percent since 1980.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • barbour021614.jpg No shows escaped death by Craigslist killer

    The young woman who says she was driven by satanic spirts to commit a cross-country murder spree over the last six years says authorities are not taking her claims seriously and that she tried to lured other central Pennslyvania men into her death snare with online companionship ads but they didn't show up.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo 2 Stories

  • firefighters.jpg VIDEO: Firefighters sing song from 'Frozen' to calm girl stuck in elevator

    Firefighters in Reading, Mass., sing the Disney power ballad known by children everywhere -- "Let It Go" -- to calm a 4-year-old stuck in an elevator.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • dog-sunglasses.jpg Do animals have a sense of humor?

    Right now, in a high-security research lab at Northwestern University's Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, scientists are tickling rats. Their goal? To develop a pharmaceutical-grade happiness pill. But their efforts might also produce some of the best evidence yet that humor isn't something experienced exclusively by human beings.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

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