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Will Curiosity’s scoop of powdered rock reveal signs of alien life?

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has successfully transferred its first sample powdered rock and it is now preparing to search for signs of life.

According to the U.S. space agency, the two-ton Mars rover Curiosity successfully scooped a full load of powdered rock, marking the first time scientists have been able to collect a sample of the subsurface of Mars.  While the rover has yet to test the sample, NASA has already said it is providing a better view of the planet’s geological history. The powdered sample is reportedly gray in color, a first for astronomers exploring the surface of Mars. NASA says the gray color could mean the subsurface of Mars is immune to oxidization process taking place on the surface of Mars. If that is the case, the chances of discovering life may be much higher due to the fact that chemistry involving oxidation destroys organic compounds, according to John Grotzinger, principal investigator for the rover mission.

The images beamed back by the rover left much of NASA’s mission control elated. A number of NASA officials said the transfer is a major step for the rover, adding that Curiosity can now begin searching for signs of organic compounds that could eventually lead to discovering signs of past life.

“Seeing the powder from the drill in the scoop allows us to verify for the first time the drill collected a sample as it bore into the rock,” said Scott McCloskey, head drill systems engineer for NASA’s Curiosity rover. “Many of us have been working toward this day for years. Getting final confirmation of successful drilling is incredibly gratifying. For the sampling team, this is the equivalent of the landing team going crazy after the successful touchdown.”

It remains unclear what NASA expects to discover in the powdered sample. Rocks in the region are thought to hold ancient objects that may provide a record of the environment in which they were formed. In addition, a better understanding of the evolution of Mars could provide astronomers with a more complete view of how life came to be on Earth. A number of experts have suggested that scientists will discover signs of life below the surface of Mars, where alien life could be protected from the harsh radioactive environment of the Mars surface.

The scoop of powdered rock comes less than two weeks after the rover first bored into a rock on the Red Planet. Curiosity bored a 2.5-inch (6.4-centimeter) hole into a target on flat Martian bedrock during the first week of February, producing the powdered sample collected this week. The U.S. space agency said the powdered rock sample in the open scoop was visible for the first time in images received at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory earlier this week.

The rock in question, dubbed “John Klein” — named in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011 — is thought to have once contained evidence of water on the Red Planet. The rock, which NASA described as “veined” and weathered, has long been the focus of NASA. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project — the part of the rover tasked with testing soil and rock samples — will later this month begin testing whether the area within Mars’ Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life, said NASA scientists.

The mission follows in the wake of NASA detailing its preparation for the complex undertaking. The U.S. space agency tested various tools and instruments in the months leading up to this month’s drilling mission. NASA officials had expressed confidence that the mission would go off without a hitch, although they noted that it is among the most complex operations undertaken on the Red Planet. Case and point: NASA’s rover team revealed minor glitches in the drill’s software in a teleconference with reporters, saying they had successfully worked around the problem.