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NASA’s Opportunity begins frantic search after signs of water discovered on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity rover received a new mission after the release of a new study noting definitive signs of clay minerals, which form under wet, non-acidic conditions that can be favorable for life.

A newly released study has unearthed evidence that images captured by European and NASA orbiters suggests Martian environments with abundant liquid water on the surface existed only during short episodes.

“The types of clay minerals that formed in the shallow subsurface are all over Mars,” said John Mustard, professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and a co-author of the study published in the journal Nature. “The types that formed on the surface are found at very limited locations and are quite rare.”

The discovery has left NASA scrambling to prepare Opportunity to travel to the site of the findings.  The rover, which is in its ninth year, executed a series of maneuvers in an attempt to better understand how to traverse the terrain near the site.  NASA engineers overseeing the operation say they now have a firm grasp of how to navigate the rover to the clay deposits.

“We’ve got a list of questions posed by the observations so far,” Squyres said. “We did this walkabout to determine the most efficient use of time to answer the questions. Now we have a good idea what we’re dealing with, and we’re ready to start the detailed work.”

The discovery could provide NASA with a large amount of definitive data regarding the past environment of Mars and whether it once hosted water — and potentially life.

Discovery of clay minerals on Mars in 2005 indicated the planet once hosted warm, wet conditions. If those conditions existed on the surface for a long era, the planet would have needed a much thicker atmosphere than it has now to keep the water from evaporating or freezing. Researchers have sought evidence of processes that could cause a thick atmosphere to be lost over time, which remains one of the mysteries of Mars.

While the discovery of water-based clay deposits is reassuring for the prospect of future life on Mars, researchers warn that any additional information gleaned from Opportunity should be taken with a grain of salt.

“If surface habitats were short-term, that doesn’t mean we should be glum about prospects for life on Mars, but it says something about what type of environment we might want to look in,” said the report’s lead author, Bethany Ehlmann, assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The most stable Mars habitats over long durations appear to have been in the subsurface. On Earth, underground geothermal environments have active ecosystems.”

Still, the operation is seen as an exciting moment for Opportunity. The NASA rover will reportedly attempt to reach a pair of outcrops near Matijevic Hill. NASA has dubbed the sites “Whitewater Lake” and “Kirkwood.” Whitewater Lake is light-toned material that science team members believe may contain the clay deposits, while Kirkwood contains small spheres with composition, structure and distribution that differ from other iron-rich spherules, which scientists say are of interest.

The rover’s current activities were presented at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.