After just seven months on Mars, NASA's rover Curiosity has sent back apparent proof that the Red Planet could have supported life in the distant past.
"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, in a written statement. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."
The evidence came from the first rock that NASA technology has ever drilled on another planet.
NASA reported Tuesday afternoon that analysis of a rock sample that Curiosity 's robotic arm collected when it bored a 2.4-inch hole into a rock on Feb. 8 showed that it contained sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, key chemical ingredients for life.
The rock sample was analyzed by chemistry instruments on the rover. The data was then sent to NASA scientists.
This is a huge finding for NASA, which sent the super rover Curiosity to Mars to seek evidence that the planet could have supported life, even in microbial form, at any point in its history, officials said.
The sedimentary rock that was drilled sits near an ancient streambed in Gale Crater. Data from the test indicates that the area was once the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided the chemical energy and other conditions that could support the growth and survival of microbes.
The sample from the drilled rock also showed that the ancient environment it came from was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or very salty, NASA reported.
"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. "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."
Curiosity, which carries 17 cameras and 10 scientific instruments, drilled the rock at a site only a few hundred yards away from the spot where it found an ancient streambed last fall.
Curiosity's predecessors -- the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity -- were not equipped for drilling.
Today's news comes amid a NASA effort to repair software and hardware problems onboard Curiosity.
After finding a few weeks ago that computers onboard Curiosity were suffering memory problems, NASA engineers switched the rover onto its backup software system.
Engineers are continuing to analyze the problem.
"These tests have provided a great deal of information about the rover's A-side memory," said Jim Erickson, deputy project manager for Curiosity. "We have been able to store new data in many of the memory locations previously affected and believe more runs will demonstrate more memory is available."
NASA expects to upload two software patches, targeting onboard memory allocation and vehicle safing procedures, later this week.
The space agency reported that after the software patches are installed, the mission team will reassess when to resume full rover mission operations.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.