A team of researchers has found what may once have been the most liveable mud on Mars.

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Some of the oldest minerals ever analysed by NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover show that around four billion years ago Mars had liquid water so fresh it could have supported life.

The findings were announced in a special 'Exploring Mars Habitability' edition of the journal Science released today to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Mars Opportunity Rover and its twin, Spirit, landing on the red planet.

CSIRO's Dr Paulo de Souza, who is on the science team led by Cornell University's Professor Steven Squyres, said a major focus on NASA's decade of research on Mars surface was whether the planet may ever have been habitable.

“While Mars is too cold now to have the liquid water needed for life, we've had evidence for past water activity on the planet from satellite images of valleys and analysis of rocks by the Rovers,” Dr de Souza said.

“But the water that once shaped those landscapes and minerals was as acidic as vinegar.

“Our latest research has found not only the earliest episode of water activity documented yet by the Opportunity Rover, but that the geochemistry of the 4 billion year old rocks indicates extensive deposits of past water that’s among the freshest, most life-sustaining found so far anywhere on Mars.

“If there was ever life on Mars, then this would have been the mud for it to live in.”

Dr de Souza is a Science Leader at CSIRO in micro-sensors and has worked with NASA since the Mars Exploration Rover Program began, having collaborated with NASA's research teams for many years.

Dr de Souza is very proud of the Opportunity Rover, a golf buggy-sized all-terrain vehicle also known as 'Oppy', whose tenth birthday is today.

“She's a brave little Rover and she's way past warranty,” he said.

“Opportunity's Mars mission was expected to last just months but she’s still going strong 10 years on with no signs of stopping.  She's travelled 38km instead of the few hundred metres planned.

“Along the way, Oppy’s collected invaluable information about Mars' surface with her high tech toolkit of rock scrapers, chemical sensors, and spectral analysers.”

Oppy's been beaming a decade’s worth of data back to space receiving stations on Earth, including the Canberra Deep Space Communication Centre outside Canberra at Tidbinbilla managed by CSIRO.

“Thanks to the Rovers, we now have a much richer knowledge of our nearest planet and where to focus our future search for microfossils, present water and other signs of life,” Dr de Souza said.

Dr de Souza is giving three public lectures on 23-24 January at CSIRO Discovery in Canberra to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Program. The lectures are suitable for all ages.

Media are also invited to interview Dr de Souza at CSIRO Discovery at 10am Friday 24 January and enjoy some Mars Rover birthday cake.

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Images

  • Infographic: Aussie eyes on Mars.

    Infographic: Aussie eyes on Mars.

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  • An artist's concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover (Opportunity) on the surface of Mars.

    An artist's concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover (Opportunity) on the surface of Mars.  ©Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell University

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  • Me and my Rover. Paulo de Souza with a model of the Mars Rover, Opportunity.

    Me and my Rover. Paulo de Souza with a model of the Mars Rover, Opportunity.

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  • CSIRO microsensor specialist Paulo de Souza has worked with NASA on the Mars Rover Program.

    CSIRO microsensor specialist Paulo de Souza has worked with NASA on the Mars Rover Program.

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  • Opportunity’s view (in false-colour) of ancient mudstones on a rocky outcrop on the rim of Endeavour Crater.

    Opportunity’s view (in false-colour) of ancient mudstones on a rocky outcrop on the rim of Endeavour Crater.  ©Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU

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Additional information

About

Dr Paulo de Souza: At CSIRO's Computational Informatics, Dr Paulo de Souza is leading research on micro-sensor technologies and systems. A physicist and miniaturisation expert, Dr de Souza is recognised internationally in field robotics, geochemistry and environmental engineering. He is a collaborating scientist on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission, which landed and operates two large robots, Spirit and Opportunity, on the surface of Mars.

CDSCC: The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations around the world providing continuous, two-way radio contact with spacecraft exploring our solar system and beyond.

Reference

Arvidson RE, Squyres SW, Bell III JF, Catalano JG, Clark BC, Crumpler LS, de Souza Jr PA, Fairén AG, Farrand WH, Fox VK, Gellert R, Ghosh A, Golombek MP, Grotzinger JP, Guinness EA, Herkenhoff KE, Jolliff BL, Knol AH, Li R, McLennan SM, Ming DW, Mittlefehldt DW, Moore JM, Morris RV, Murchie SL, Parker TJ, Paulsen G, Rice JW, Ruff SW, Smith MD, Wolff MJ. 2014. Ancient Aqueous Environments at Endeavour Crater, Mars . Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1248097.

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