NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected boron for the first time on the surface of Mars, indicating the potential for long-term habitable groundwater in the ancient past.
“No prior mission to Mars has found boron,” said Patrick Gasda of the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
“If the boron that we found in calcium sulfate mineral veins on Mars is similar to what we see on Earth, it would indicate that the groundwater of ancient Mars that formed these veins would have been 0-60 degrees Celsius and neutral-to-alkaline pH,” Gasda noted.
The temperature, pH, and dissolved mineral content of the groundwater could make it habitable, according to the scientists.
The boron was identified by the rover’s laser-shooting Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, which was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in conjunction with the French space agency.
Boron is famously associated with arid sites where much water has evaporated away. However, environmental implications of the boron found by Curiosity are still open to debate.
Whether Martian life has ever existed is still unknown. No compelling evidence for it has been found. When Curiosity landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in 2012 the mission’s main goal was to determine whether the area ever offered an environment favourable for microbes.
Curiosity is currently climbing a layered Martian mountain and finding rock-composition evidence of how ancient lakes and wet underground environments changed, billions of years ago.
The discovery of boron is only one of several recent findings related to the composition of Martian rocks.
Hematite and clay minerals are among the other ingredients found to be more abundant in layers farther uphill, compared with lower, older layers examined earlier in the mission.
“The boron and clay underline the mobility of elements and electrons, and that is good for life,” John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, pointed out.
The findings were discussed in San Francisco during the American Geophysical Union conference.