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NASA's Mars rover revealing secrets

October 5, 2012 12:10 am

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NASA^BENT^0027^EENT^s Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, stream on Mars, including the rock outcrop pictured here, AbbouDavid1.jpg

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THE NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover named Curiosity has hit an astronomical home run. With only two months under its belt since landing on Mars, Curiosity already has made a major discovery: NASA announced it found a dried-up river on the Martian surface.

While earlier missions found evidence that water existed on Mars long ago, this discovery is the first to uncover rocks and gravel from an ancient river, a sort of smoking gun showing that flowing water definitely did exist in the planet's distant past.

Scientists studying the photos of the rocks and gravel estimate that water in this river flowed at about 3 feet per second and was perhaps waist deep. A close-up photo of the ancient riverbed gravel clearly shows rounded rocks and pebbles similar to those seen in streams and rivers on Earth. Scientists think this particular river existed for thousands or millions of years before it dried up.

Such an amazing discovery clearly shows that Mars was once a much more hospitable place than it is presently, and again raises the question about life beginning on the Red Planet. Mars is a cold and dry place today, so understanding the contrast between then and now is the key to learning why it changed so dramatically, and may help us understand Earth's changing climate as well.

Looking at these photos and wondering if life might have begun on our next-door planetary neighbor is certainly exciting and well worth contemplating.

I remember the excitement when NASA's Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft touched down on Mars 36 years ago. The Vikings sent back the first-ever photos from Mars' surface, showing a stark, alien world that captured the attention of our nation during its bicentennial in 1976.

The Curiosity rover, a much more sophisticated machine than its Viking relatives, continues the Vikings' tradition of trailblazing new paths as it drives across the Martian surface searching for signs of life during its two-year mission. It has been an amazing mission so far, only two months since landing, and there's much more to come!

OCTOBER SKIES

You can still see Mars this month as it continues to be visible very low in the southwestern sky after sunset. Look for the Red Planet to be near the crescent moon about an hour after sunset on Oct. 18.

Venus and Jupiter continue to dazzle in the mornings before sunrise, with Jupiter high in the sky and Venus closer to the horizon. Look for Jupiter to be near the moon during the mornings of Oct. 5-6.

Venus gleams brightly this month before sunrise above the eastern horizon. Look for it to be near the moon during the mornings of Oct. 11-13.

David Abbou of Stafford County is a volunteer with the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors Program and is a member of the Rappahannock Astronomy Club. Contact him at
Email: dabbou@comcast.net.





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