First off, many apologies for the lack of postings in the last several weeks. Unfortunately, it was a case where work obligations, the holiday rush, and a computer project conspired against blogging. Now on to the post.
Unnoticed by the lamestream media as it was recovering from their New Years’ Eve hangovers, reporting on the effort to retrieve bits and pieces of plane wreckage from the Java Sea, and covering the violent rampage in France, a discovery was made that could potentially be one of the greatest in the history of history.
The last several months, the websites that deal with weird stuff of dubious validity would carry reports of someone claiming to spot something in the images from the Curiosity Mars rover that look like one kind of odd object or another. However, someone recently came forward and announced that they saw something amazing in some of those images.
According to this Space Daily article, Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, noticed something familiar in an image taken of a sedimentary rock formation. What appeared in the image resembled a sedimentary layer that contained the fossil remains of a microbial mat, a flat, slime-like mass of microorganisms that forms in bodies of water under favorable conditions. When alive, sediment grains get stuck in the mat and that leaves telltale markings when the sediments turn into rock.
Noffke has studied microbial mats and the fossils they form for over twenty years and she claims that, after very detailed analysis of the images from Mars, these features do bear very strong similarity to known microbial mat fossils on Earth.
If this can be confirmed, these would be the first fossils found outside of Earth and the first evidence of extraterrestrial life. But that is the problem. While Curiosity did take detailed images, it turns out the rover is not well equipped to confirm whether these are indeed fossils. It is quite likely that any organic compounds in the material have long since disappeared and it has also been announced that one of the analytical instruments on Curiosity suffered some contamination on landing, therefore compromising any effort at detailed measurements.
So, it may be a very long time before we can either send a probe with advanced instruments capable of testing for microfossils, return samples to Earth, or have human geologists examine them on Mars.
To her credit, Noffke is keeping an open mind to the possibility that the markings are of strictly geological origin. While this would not be as amazing a discovery as microfossils, it would still indicate that Martian geology has some surprises, which would be of scientific significance as well.