New evidence uncovered by NASA’s Opportunity rover has revealed that Mars more than likely harbored an environment capable of supporting microbial life. And it wasn’t just for a short period, either. The newest data has scientists feeling confident Mars once had suitable conditions for hundreds of millions of years thanks to nearly neutral-pH water.
If true, primitive organisms could have been able to survive on Mars just as life was flourishing on Earth. This isn’t the first evidence of microbial life we’ve seen on Mars, and likely not the last—not at the rate these NASA rovers are going.
Scientists cautioned the habitable environments may have occurred “here and there” regionally, “and may not have been for the whole time continuously.” Both NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, have been on the prowl on Mars, finding plenty of potential for a different Martian planet than we know it to be today.
Opportunity made its most recent discovery at an outcrop near the rim of Endeavour Crater, which is a 14-mile-wide hole on the Mars surface. There, the rover encountered the oldest rocks ever studied on Mars—perhaps 4 billion years old—where scientists believe liquid water flowed a long time ago. Over time, the conditions became more inclement, and eventually progressed into the Martian planet we know today.
The findings are promising when taken with similar findings from NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been exploring a different part of Mars since 2012. Back in early December, Curiosity data found that a lakebed nearby the rover’s landing site could have once been full of life. Put together with Opportunity’s latest data, and scientists are getting a better idea of how much of Mars was habitable, and for how long.