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Will Curiosity discover life when it begins drilling on Mars? Scientists say it’s possible

It’s the big question everyone is wondering: Will NASA discover life when it begins drilling on Mars later this month.

The U.S. space agency, which has expressed optimism about its upcoming drill, has simply said they will wait and hope, but that they are not making any promises.

The one-ton rover, which is slated to begin drilling into the surface of Mars some time this month, has spent the past several weeks traveling across the region in order to reach an outcrop of rocks, that at least one NASA scientist says represents the jackpot.

The location, which NASA has dubbed Yellowknife Bay, reportedly holds a crop of rocks that may have once resided underwater. The rover is currently examining a series of veined rocks where water once flowed. NASA says the light-toned chains of linear mineral veins inside fractured rocks littering the diverse Martian terrain is exactly what they hoped for in their search for further evidence of past water.

Chemical analysis shows that the veins contain traces of calcium and sulfur — both of which are seen as key building blocks for life. The veined rocks could hold minerals locked within that NASA’s Curiosity rover will reveal when it drills into the rock, extracting a sample that its laboratory will then analyze for signs for life. Other rock layers reveal the action of water currents depositing layers of sand in cross-bedded fashion near the proposed drill site.

While Mars appears dusty and dry, scientists around the world suspect Mars was once a warm, wet planet capable of maintaining life. In fact, a recent report notes that NASA’s search for life is on the right track, noting that the space agency’s focus on primitive rock formations may eventually yield results.

A recently released report notes life — at least in its primitive form — is likely to reside underground, far from the constant stream of radiation bombarding the planet. If Mars once held organic molecule — such as carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen — the planet  could have held locations suitable for life, including those located near past sources of water.  If life did exist on Mars, the study’s authors surmise, it is likely located in pocketed areas around Mars, rather than broadly spread across the surface.

That said, even if NASA does not discover signs of life, researcher say they will continue searching as the mission turns southwestward to its main destination on the slope of Mount Sharp, a rocky mountain side that contains a number of exposed rocks. The exposed rocks provide NASA with a chance to explore the subsurface in greater detail, possibly providing a better chance of identifying key life-giving elements within the Martian soil.

Discovering biological evidence on Mars, according to NASA, would help scientists on Earth better understand how life evolve in the solar system, and, ultimately, how life came to be on Earth. Speaking Friday, NASA officials said they are currently slated to attempt their first drilling mission Tuesday. Curiosity mission managers outlined a drilling plan that will allow them to test the drill and assess any complications that arise.