Science Names Mars Rover Mission Science Program as Breakthrough of the Year

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Science names Cornell-led Mars rover mission science program as
Breakthrough of the Year
Contact: David Brand
Office: 607-255-3651
ITHACA, N.Y. -- Science magazine has chosen the discoveries of NASA's
Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission as Breakthrough of the Year in its
Dec. 17 edition, published today.
The principal scientific investigator for the mission's twin-rover
science program is Steve Squyres, professor of astronomy at Cornell
University, assisted by a large team of researchers, 28 of them at
Cornell, including 15 students. The mission is managed by the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The journal, published by the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that its
annual top honor is awarded for the mission's discovery of evidence for
the prolonged presence of potentially life-supporting, salty, acidic
water on the planet's surface.
"For a time, it seems, early Mars was a watery, habitable place," the
magazine says.
Says Squyres: "All of us on the MER project team have been working so
hard on this for so long that it's really difficult for us to judge the
significance of our work -- we're too close to it, and the results are
too new. But it's very gratifying to hear that others in the science
community see significance in what we've found."
The Mars discoveries by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which
down on opposite sides of the planet last January, lead nine other
research advances that make up Science' list of the top 10 scientific
developments of 2004, chosen for "their profound implications for
society and the advancement of science," according to the magazine.
The magazine's lead article on the rovers, "On Mars, A Second Chance
Life" by Richard Kerr, begins: "Inanimate, wheeled, one-armed boxes
roaming another planet have done something no human has ever managed:
They have discovered another place in the universe where life could
have existed." It continues: "The two Mars rovers [Spirit in Gusev
Crater and Opportunity in Meridiani Planum] confirmed what many Mars
scientists have long suspected: Long ago, enough water pooled on the
face of Earth's neighbor long enough to allow the possibility of life."
The article notes that although Viking missions provided "tantalizing
hints" almost 30 years ago, "Mars scientists could never be sure
the water-carved valleys, channels and gullies that they saw through
orbiting cameras implied the prolonged presence of surface water.
"The Mars rovers have now put a bound on the water debate."
Although the Mars rover mission is not designed to look for life, but
look for evidence of whether conditions were once right for life, it
does have the goal of seeking rocks that were formed in liquid water.
From these, mission scientists can say not just that liquid water was on
Mars but what the environmental conditions were like and whether they
would have been suitable for life. And, as Squyres has noted, do the
minerals that were formed have the capability to preserve evidence of
former life for long periods of time?
The record that Opportunity's instruments found in the rocks in the
rover's landing site, dubbed Eagle crater, the Science article notes,
"turned out to be about salt, an end product of the water weathering of
rock, rather than the expected water-altered minerals." (This discovery
was made before the rover drove to and entered the large crater dubbed
Endurance for a six-month sojourn, from which it has just emerged.)
As the article explains, the Eagle outcrop is up to 40 percent salts,
mostly magnesium and calcium sulfates. And the presence of the mineral
jarosite suggests that the water was quite acidic. Acid water leached
salts from the rock and flowed across "a shallow sea, or perhaps a vast
puddle." When the water evaporated, it left the salts and dirt behind.
The salty sea, or puddles, "appear to have spanned more than 300,000
square kilometers of Meridiani Planum," the article says.
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