News & AnalysisPlanetary Science

New Results Send Mars Rover on a Quest for Ancient Life

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Science  13 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6164, pp. 1300-1301
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6164.1300

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Recent results from the Curiosity Mars rover have helped scientists formulate a plan for the next phase of its mission: looking for possible "molecular fossils" left by ancient martian microbes. Analyses of rocks show that Curiosity landed near a former lake that at least intermittently held enough water to have supported life. Now, papers published online in Science show that rocks that once formed the lakebed and bottom mud layer are high in organic carbon molecules. Researchers can't tell yet whether the molecules came from ancient life or rained down from space. But future analyses—especially of recently eroded rocks that spent most of their history shielded from the cosmic rays thought to sterilize the top meter or so nearest the martian surface—should help researchers determine whether Mars ever harbored life.