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Humankind is by nature inquisitive, especially about the prospect of life on other planets and whether or not we are alone. The aptly named Curiosity, a NASA Mars rover, has been scouring that planet's surface as a potential habitat for life, either past or present. Stony Brook Department of Geosciences professors Scott McLennan and Joel Hurowitz just revealed some exciting findings, as lead and co-authors of six papers that appeared in the December 9 online issue of Science.

"We have determined that the rocks preserved there represent an ancient geological environment that was habitable for microbial life," says McLennan, who was selected as a Participating Scientist for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover mission. Adds Hurowitz, "Curiosity carried out the work in an area on Mars called Yellowknife Bay, within Gale crater. The rover fully characterized this environment in terms of its geological and geochemical relationships."

This meticulous representation is crucial to understanding whether Mars was theoretically habitable. A major model of Martian history posits that the planet had fresh water to generate clay minerals -- and possibly support life -- more than 4 billion years ago, but experienced a drying phenomenon that changed the conditions to more acidic and briny. A key question about the clay minerals at Yellowknife Bay was whether they formed early in Martian history -- up on the crater rim where the bits of rock originated -- or later, down where the bits were carried by flowing water and deposited.

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