Friday Fun: Life on Mars

Brian's Take on Tech

Bringing you info about technology, and how it impacts your life for better and worse.   -Brian K, Community Partnerships Supervisor

 Image: Comparing Conglomerate Rock on Mars and Earth

Yes, this big news is everywhere or will be by the time you get home and watch the evening news (unless you're out at License to Cruise tonight...well, I suppose if you go to any Octoberfest this weekend, you could miss or forget this news entirely). Anyhow, the Curiosity rover, the Indiana Jones of robots adventuring on and exploring Mars, has found conglomerate rock!

If you're like, "Hey, it's been awhile since high school/college geology class," I've saved you a step be getting that Wikipedia link for you. If you're fine with short explanations, conglomerate rock is the sort of rock that forms over geologic time when river beds dry up and the sediment in the bed cements together and becomes packed under layers of sediment. If you think about the stones in the bottom of a riverbed, you know there's finer sediment under larger rounded stones--which are rounded thanks to being beaten up in and by the water. In the image you can see the mix of sizes of rounded stones cemented together as found on Earth on the right and on (squee!) Mars on the left.

Why squee? The idea is that water is necessary for life to exist--it's less idea than practice, really. So if we find evidence of water on Mars, the possibility of life having existed there is increased! In a college geology class field trip, I traveled around Arizona and on one of the stops examined an exposed layer of rock that was under water millenia ago. The stones and sediment in this layer were mixed with fossils of shelled animals. How amazing would it be if the Curiosity found fossils? To find life on another planet suggests the possibilty of life on other planets, which would then make me want to be cryogenically frozen and revived at a later time when we've figured out commercial space travel.

Not so fast, day dreamer! This rock was formed from a stream that long-flowing stream scientists estimate moved at 3 feet per second and was deep enough to cover somewhere between your foot and your whole leg. What does that mean for finding evidence of life in this particular rock? From NASA's announcement, "A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment," said Grotzinger. "It is not our top choice as an environment for preservation of organics, though. We're still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment." I'll just have to find ways to occupy myself while Curiosity makes its slow advance on Mount Sharp then.

By the way, apologies to geologists for any oversimplification and avoidance of technical language--I'll let the curious learn about matrix, clasts, and things I've left out on that Wikipedia page.

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