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Published: Tuesday, 10/2/2012

Martian pay dirt

The Mars rover Curiosity opens a new era of planetary exploration. A month after landing on the Martian surface, Curiosity has uncovered evidence of what may have been an ancient riverbed.

This is a milestone for a mission that has barely begun the meticulous work of uncovering the red planet’s secrets. NASA scientists are ecstatic about the pictures Curiosity has beamed back to Earth of possible water flows.

The photos are of smooth rocks and gravel transported by water from other sites. They were probably churned up when a waist-high river flow carried the material downstream before humans existed on Earth.

Much observation and many experiments have yet to be performed, but scientists are confident they have confirmed the hypothesis that rivers once flowed on the Martian surface. They are moving on to the next phase of the mission — searching for carbon-based molecules, the element that all life has in common.

As it ambles to Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high peak, Curiosity will look for carbon in areas that could have supported life. At the rate it is surprising NASA scientists, we shouldn’t be shocked at what else the robot rover comes across in the Martian landscape.

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