Science magazine has chosen the discoveries of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission as Breakthrough of the Year in its Dec. 17 edition, published today. The principal scientific investigator for the mission’s twin-rover science program is Steve Squyres, professor of astronomy at Cornell University, assisted by a large team of researchers, 28 of them at Cornell, including 15 students. The mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The journal, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that its annual top honor is awarded for the mission’s discovery of evidence for the prolonged presence of potentially life-supporting, salty, acidic water on the planet’s surface.
Conditions on vast plain on Mars could have been suitable for life, Cornell rover scientist Squyres states in special Science issue Cornell
Scientists have long been tantalized by the question of whether life once existed on Mars. Although present conditions on the planet would seem to be inhospitable to life, the data sent back over the past 10 months by NASA’s two exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, showed a world that might once have been warmer and wetter — perhaps friendly enough to support microbial organisms. Now a Cornell University-led Mars rover science team reports on the historic journey by the rover Opportunity, which is exploring a vast plain, Meridiani Planum, and concludes with this observation: “Liquid water was once present intermittently at the martian surface at Meridiani, and at times it saturated the subsurface. Because liquid water is a key prerequisite for life, we infer that conditions at Meridiani may have been habitable for some period of time in martian history.”