Mars rover Opportunity has discovered rock samples that NASA said confirms that an ancient life-friendly wet environment existed on the Red Planet billions of years ago.
Researchers believe wet conditions created clay mineral known as iron-rich smectite about 4 billion years ago, according to a statement from NASA.
Ray Arvidson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and Opportunity’s deputy principal investigator, said the latest discovery is a landmark in the rover’s findings.
“These rocks are older than any we examined earlier in the mission, and they reveal more favorable conditions for microbial life than any evidence previously examined by investigations with Opportunity,” Arvidson said.
The discovery comes about 10 years after Opportunity began rolling around the rim of the Endeavour Crater. Over the decade Opportunity has driven about 24 miles, and is about halfway around the planet from Curiosity, NASA’s latest rover.
“We’re finding more places where Mars reveals a warmer and wetter planet in its history,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, in a statement. “This gives us greater incentive to continue seeking evidence of past life on Mars.”
Researchers said the exploration program will help NASA’s plans for human missions to Mars in the 2030s.
“We’re looking at the legacy of Opportunity’s first decade this week, but there’s more good stuff ahead,” said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, the mission’s principal investigator, in a statement. “Mars keeps surprising us, just like in the very first week of the mission.”