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NASA Curiosity hits ‘jackpot’ on Mars; What has NASA discovered, exactly?

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has reportedly hit the “jackpot’ on the Red Planet.

According to NASA administrators, the rover has arrived at a site widely seen as the perfect location for determining whether water once flowed across the surface of the planet. NASA engineers have spent the better half of a month directing the rover to the location, where white veins of minerals course through rocks on the floor of Mars’s Gale Crater. Scientists say these rock provide some of the strongest evidence yet that the rover Curiosity’s landing site once was a wetter, warmer place.

“[It] turns out to be kind of the ‘jackpot’ unit,” said John Grotzinger, the mission’s chief scientist of the California Institute of Technology. “It is literally shot through with these fractures and vein fills.”

Yellowknife Bay, the rover’s current location on Mars, is supposedly littered with rocks fractured by minerals that once precipitated out of water flowing through fissures in the rock. The site, therefore, is seen as the best source for collecting rock and soil samples that could provide scientists with definitive proof that water once flowed on Mars.

“The scientists have been let into the candy store,”said Richard Cook, the project manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in reference to the string of rocks discovered by Curiosity.

“There is a high diversity of rocks types here to characterize,” added Mike Malin, principal investigator of Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS). “We see layering, veins and concretions. The area is still undergoing some changes.”

The announcement comes as NASA is preparing the rover for its first drilling session. The car-sized rover will carry out history’s first drilling of a Martian rock that was percolated by liquid water. The samples collected from the rock will then be analyzed by the rover’s laboratory system. Curiosity has the ability to drill about two  inches into rocks, presenting scientists with their first chance to penetrate the surface of Mars and better understand past and present conditions.

Whether the latest findings eventually lead to clear evidence of liquid water remains to be seen. NASA’s key goal with the Mars rover is to establish whether life once existed on Mars, and discovering signs of water would greatly increase the odds that life once roamed Mars.

The latest mission comes nearly six months after the rover survived a stunning descent to the Red Planet. The rover has spent the last six months exercising its array of ten scientific instruments and its seven-foot robotic arm, all part of a process to flawlessly execute a series of upcoming missions. While the current site is viewed as a “jackpot,” NASA scientists say they are even more thrilled about the upcoming mission to Mount Sharp, a geologically important feature that Curiosity will travel to before the end of the year.