WASHINGTON, March 12 (UPI) -- NASA says the Mars Curiosity rover's analysis of a rock sample confirms the Red Planet could have supported living microbes in its ancient past.
The analysis identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the sample Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater, NASA announced at a news conference Tuesday.
"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."
The data, provided by the rover's sample analysis at Mars and chemistry and mineralogy instruments, indicates the area the rover is exploring was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes.
This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty, NASA scientists said.
"The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of the sample analysis suite of instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Additional drilled samples of the Red Planet will be collected to help confirm these results, researchers said.
"We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and exploration, and as a team we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come."