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Did Curiosity photograph microbial remains on Mars?

A scientist believes that formations in Martian rocks may have been created by microorganisms.

Dr. Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, studied images photographed by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. These particular photos were taken as Curiosity made its way through a dry lakebed in Yellowknife Bay. She noticed several similarities between Martian sedimentary structures and and microbial structures on Earth, leading her to believe that the structures might be evidence of ancient extraterrestrial life.

“In one image, I saw something that looked very familiar,” Noffke explains to Astrobiology Magazine. “So I took a closer look, meaning I spent several weeks investigating certain images centimeter by centimeter, drawing sketches, and comparing them to data from terrestrial structures. And I’ve worked on these for 20 years, so I knew what to look for.”

Comparison between structures on Mars and a modern microbial mat on Earth. (Credit: Nora Noffke/Astrobiology)
Comparison between structures on Mars and a modern microbial mat on Earth. (Credit: Nora Noffke/Astrobiology)

Based on her decades of experience, Noffke thinks there is a really good possibility that these Martian sedimentary structures are consistent with biological origin. But Curiosity mission project scientist Ashwin Vasavada disagrees. “We really didn’t see anything that can’t be explained by natural processes of transporting that sand in water, and the nature of the rocks suggested that it was just a fluvial sandstone,” Vesavada explains to Space.com.

Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Astrobiology Magazine points out that, “although Noffke makes a tantalizing case for possible signs of ancient life on Mars, her report is not a definitive proof that these structures were shaped by biology. Getting such confirmation would involve returning rock samples to Earth and conducting additional microscopic analyses, a mission that isn’t scheduled anytime in the near future.”

And Noffke agrees. “All I can say is, here’s my hypothesis and here’s all the evidence that I have,” she states. But she firmly believes that “this evidence is a lot.”

The paper detailing Nofke’s research was published in the journal Astrobiology.

Jason McClellan

Jason McClellan is a UFO journalist and the producer/co-host of the web series Spacing Out! He is also the web content manager and staff writer for OpenMinds.tv, and a co-organizer and technical producer of the International UFO Congress. As a founding member of Open Minds, Jason served as a writer and editor for the now defunct Open Minds magazine. He has appeared on Syfy, NatGeo, and, most recently, he co-starred on H2's Hangar 1: The UFO Files. ------ Follow Jason on Twitter @acecentric and subscribe to Jason's updates on Facebook.

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