The ageing Mars rover Opportunity has found evidence that the conditions for ancient life once existed on the Red planet.

The six-wheeled robot has been on Mars since 2004, but it is still producing useful science.

Its remarkable longevity has astounded and delighted Nasa officials, who initially expected that it would last for just 90 Martian days.

Instead it is continuing to roll along the surface, 37 times longer than anybody thought it would.

Its latest discovery is one of its most exciting, Nasa officials said: an area of rock which was clearly weathered by large amounts of water, indicating that the conditions for life once existed on the planet.

nasa

Above: Preliminary interpretation points to clay mineral content due to intensive alteration by water.


No, it's not quite a skeleton of a Martian buffalo. But the rock ("Esperance") is unlike any the rover has previously found, fractured and weathered by conditions that were "possibly favorable for life", Nasa said.

The new pictures were taken at Cape York, an area on the rim of the massive Endeavour crater.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Curiosity's First Color Photo

    Curiosity snaps the first color view of the north wall and rim of Gale Crater, where NASA's Mars rover landed Sunday night. The picture was taken by the rover's camera at the end of its stowed robotic arm and appears fuzzy because of dust on the camera's cover.

  • NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured this image of Curiosity--the rover and its parachute are in the center of the white box.

  • The green diamond shows approximately where NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, a region about 2 kilometers northeast of its target in the center of the estimated landing region (blue ellipse).

  • This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5 PDT (morning of Aug. 6 EDT). It was taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens on the left "eye" of a stereo pair of Hazard-Avoidance cameras on the left-rear side of the rover.

  • In this black and white photo released by NASA's JPL-Caltech, This is the first image taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5 a.m. PDT. It was taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens on one of the rover's front left Hazard-Avoidance cameras at one-quarter of full resolution. The clear dust cover on the camera is still on in this view, and dust can be seen around its edge, along with three cover fasteners. The rover's shadow is visible in the foreground. As planned, the rover's early engineering images are lower resolution. Larger color images are expected later in the week when the rover's mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

  • In this black and white photo released by NASA's JPL-Caltech, Curiosity rover snaps picture of its shadow. This is the first image taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the evening of Aug. 5 PDT . It was taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens on one of the rover's rear left Hazard-Avoidance cameras at one-quarter of full resolution. The clear dust cover on the camera is still on in this view, and dust can be seen around its edge, along with three cover fasteners. Larger color images are expected later in the week when the rover's mast, carrying high-resolution cameras, is deployed. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

  • A spectator watches a live stream of the Mars Curiosity landing while listening to an audio broadcast on her phone among the hundreds of other on-lookers in Times Square, August 6, 2012, in New York. After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, Curiosity landed on Mars Sunday night. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

  • MARS LANDING

    Steve Collins waits during the "Seven Minutes of Terror" as the rover approaches the surface of mars, inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. The Curiosity robot is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and potentially paving the way for human exploration. (AP Photo/Brian van der Brug, Pool)

  • MARS LANDING

    NASA Administrator Charles Bolden smiles as the rover begins its decent to the surface of mars, inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Sunday August 5, 2012. The Curiosity robot is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and potentially paving the way for human exploration.(AP Photo/Brian Van Der Brug, Pool)

  • This photo released by NASA on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 shows the view from the balcony of the control rooms at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Dark Room in the foreground, Deep Space Network control room on the right, and the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Mission Support Area, back left, in Pasadena, Calif. The MSL Rover named Curiosity is designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Curiosity is due to land on Mars at 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 2012 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6, 2012). (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls)

  • In this photo released by NASA's JPL, Members Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team work in the MSL Mission Support Area at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory hours ahead of the planned landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 in Pasadena, Calif. The MSL Rover named Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Curiosity is due to land on Mars at 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5, 2012 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6, 2012) (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls)

  • Curiosity Lands On Mars

    Shannon Lampton, and Charlene Pittman, both educators with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, cheer as they watch NASA's Mars Curiosity rover land on Mars during a special viewing event at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 in Huntsville, Ala. (AP Photo/The Huntsville Times, Eric Schultz)

  • In a photo provided by NASA, the Mars Science Laboratory team in the MSL Mission Support Area reacts after learning the the Curiosity rover has landed safely on Mars and images start coming in at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Mars, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 in Pasadena, Calif. The MSL Rover named Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Photo Credit: (AP Photo/NASA/Bill Ingalls)

  • Alex Trebek

  • Lennon Batchelor, 27, of Orlando, center, pauses while watching a live stream of the Mars Curiosity landing while neighboring spectators cheer in Times Square after the successful touch-down, August 6, 2012, in New York. After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, Curiosity landed on Mars Sunday night. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

  • Leland Melvin, William

    Musician Will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, right, and former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, left, address bloggers at NASA Social media event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on August 12, 2012, hours before the Mars rover Curiosity is due to land on the surface of Mars. The most high-tech rover NASA has ever designed was speeding toward Mars on Sunday to attempt an acrobatic landing on the planet's surface. The Curiosity rover was poised to hit the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph. If all goes according to script, it will be slowly lowered into a massive crater by cables in the final few seconds. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Mars Science Laboratory Flight Director Keith Comeaux, left, talks to his team inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. The Curiosity robot is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and potentially paving the way for human exploration. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Brian van der Brug, Pool)

  • Activity lead Bobak Ferdowsi, who cuts his hair differently for each mission, works inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. The Curiosity robot is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, measuring habitability, and potentially paving the way for human exploration. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Brian van der Brug, Pool)

  • Charles Elachi, Charles Bolden, John Holdren

    In this photo provided by NASA, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team welcomes White House Science and Technology Advisor John Holdren, third standing from left, as he stops by to meet the landing team and to say "Go Curiosity" as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, second from left, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Charles Elachi, far left look on, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. The MSL Rover named Curiosity is designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Curiosity is due to land on Mars at 10:31 p.m. PDT Sunday night. (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls)

  • In this photo released by NASA, an empty jar marked "Days Until Entry" and a jar full of marbles marked "Days Since Launch" sit on a conference room table during a meeting of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The MSL team has been moving one marble a day since launch from jar to jar. The MSL Rover named Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Curiosity is due to land on Mars Sunday night. (AP Photo/NASA, Bill Ingalls)

  • This artist's rendering released by NASA/JPL-Caltech on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, shows how NASA's Curiosity rover will communicate with Earth during landing. As the rover descends to the surface of Mars, it will send out two different types of data: basic radio-frequency tones that go directly to Earth (pink dots) and more complex UHF radio data (blue circles) that require relaying by orbiters. NASA's Odyssey orbiter will pick up the UHF signal and relay it immediately back to Earth, while NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will record the UHF data and play it back to Earth at a later time. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech )

  • Charles Elachi

    NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) director Charles Elachi presents a can of "good luck" peanuts during an overview of the status and plans for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, Curiosity will attempt a landing on Mars Sunday night. In keeping with a decades-old tradition, peanuts will be passed around the mission control room at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for good luck. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Adam Steltzner

    FILE - In this file photo taken Thursday, Aug., 2012, Adam Steltzner, Mars Science Laboratory's entry, descent and landing phase leader at JPL uses a scale model to explains the Curiosity rover's Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) during the Mission Engineering Overview news briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars Sunday night, Aug. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

  • Nick Lam

    FILE - This Aug. 2, 2012 file photo shows Nick Lam, data controller, monitoring the Mars rover Curiosity from the Deep Space Network's control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. NASA's Curiosity rover is zooming toward Mars. With about a day to go until a landing attempt, the space agency says the nuclear-powered rover appears on course. Tension will be high late Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, when it plummets during the "seven minutes of terror." Skimming the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, the rover needs to brake to a stop _ in seven minutes _ and set its six wheels down on the surface. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

  • (From L) John Grunsfeld, NASA associate

    (From L) John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator, Richard Cook, MSL deputy project manager, Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager, Adam Steltzner, MSL entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead and John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist from the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover mission team raise their arms at a press conference after the Mars Rover Curiosity successfully landed on the surface of the Red Planet on August 5, 2012 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA's 2.5 billion USD Mars rover on August 5 sent back its first signals to mission control as it was about to enter the Red Planet's atmosphere in the final moments of a dramatic touchdown. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission me

    Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission members work in the data processing room beside Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California August 2, 2012 ahead of the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. NASA said Thursday all was well ahead of its nail-biting mission to Mars, with its most advanced robotic rover poised to hunt for clues about past life and water on Earth's nearest planetary neighbor. On a two-year journey to seek out signs of environments that once sustained life, the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory and the largest and most sophisticated rover ever built, Curiosity, is set for 1:31 am August 6 (0531 GMT). AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A visitor takes a photo of a sign readin

    A visitor takes a photo of a sign reading 'Rover Xing' at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California August 2, 2012 ahead of the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. NASA said Thursday all was well ahead of its nail-biting mission to Mars, with its most advanced robotic rover poised to hunt for clues about past life and water on Earth's nearest planetary neighbor. On a two-year journey to seek out signs of environments that once sustained life, the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory and the largest and most sophisticated rover ever built, Curiosity, is set for 1:31 am August 6 (0531 GMT). AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission me

    Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission members work in the data processing room beside Mission Control at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California August 2, 2012 ahead of the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. NASA said Thursday all was well ahead of its nail-biting mission to Mars, with its most advanced robotic rover poised to hunt for clues about past life and water on Earth's nearest planetary neighbor. On a two-year journey to seek out signs of environments that once sustained life, the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory and the largest and most sophisticated rover ever built, Curiosity, is set for 1:31 am August 6 (0531 GMT). AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Richard Cook, Adam Steltzner, John Grotzinger

    Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity members from left: Richard Cook, MSL deputy project manager, Adam Steltzner, MSL entry, descent and landing (EDL) lead and John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist, California Institute of Technology, from the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover mission team celebrate the landing of Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • A general view shows the 70 metre dish t

    A general view shows the 70 metre dish that is tracking NASA's Mars science laboratory car-sized rover Curiosity at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Station at Tidbinbilla in Canberra on August 6th, 2012. NASA on August 5 successfully landed its 2.5 billion USD Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover on the surface of the Red Planet, marking the most ambitious attempt to reach Mars in history. AFP PHOTO / Mark GRAHAM (Photo credit should read MARK GRAHAM/AFP/GettyImages)

  • This image displays the type of detail discernable with the telescopic camera of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory mission's Curiosity rover. The instrument uses a telescope for spectroscopic analysis of chemical elements in targets such as rocks or soil. The same telescope serves the instrument's camera, called the remote microimager. For this image, the remote microimager photographed a dollar bill from 10 feet (3 meters) away. Image: NASA

  • The target landing area for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission was the ellipse marked on this image of Gale Crater. The ellipse is about 12 miles long and 4 miles wide (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers). Image: NASA

  • A June 2012 revision of the landing target area for Curiosity, the big rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, reduced the area's size. It also put the center of the landing area closer to Mount Sharp, which bears geological layers that are the mission's prime destination. Image: NASA

  • This set of images compares test images taken by four cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before launch. Image: NASA

  • This image shows the topography, with shading added, around the area where NASA's Curiosity rover is slated to land on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). Red indicates higher areas and purple indicates lower areas, with a total elevation range of about 600 feet (nearly 200 meters). The red oval indicates the targeted landing area for the rover known as the "landing ellipse." An annotation indicates the location of an alluvial fan, or a fan-shaped deposit where debris spreads out downslope. On Earth, alluvial fans often are formed by flowing water. The presence of channel-like features in the Gale Crater fan suggest a similar origin. Image: NASA

  • The Mars Science Laboratory science team divided up the location where the mission's rover, Curiosity, will land into a series of "quadrangles." This includes the targeted landing ellipse (red) and adjacent areas within Gale Crater. Each quadrangle is 0.025 degrees in latitude by 0.025 degrees in longitude. Because Gale Crater is near the equator, each quadrangle is almost a square with roughly 0.9 miles (1.5 kilometers) on a side. Image: NASA

  • This is a close-up view of the northern two-thirds of one of the quadrangles (number 50) that were mapped onto the landing region of NASA's Curiosity rover. Note the presence of layered deposits around the rim of an impact crater, as well as along a scarp that traces through the center of the quad. These exposures are reminiscent of the terrain studied by NASA's Opportunity rover, where exploration was limited to the layered deposits exposed along the flanks of craters, in addition to NASA's Spirit rover, which studied the layering exposed along a circular scarp known as "Home Plate." The Gale Crater landing region provides access to both types of exposures. Image: NASA

  • Gale Crater on Mars, where NASA's Curiosity rover landed, belongs to a family of large, very old craters shown here on this elevation map. It has one of the lowest elevations among this family. Image: NASA

  • This image shows engineers predictions of where NASA's Curiosity rover would enter the atmosphere of Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT). The background image is a false-color image from the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Image: NASA

  • Sleepy Aspiring astronaut ready for rover touchdown

  • Martian rock cookies, made with beets and white chocolate chips. (We couldn't find dried blueberries to put inside, which would have been much more fitting.) Still, surprisingly yummy!

  • At JPL

    Painting demo by members of the International Association of Astronomical Artists. Four artists are working on this image of Curiosity on Mars with the point of view being from the Gale Crater. The painting will be presented to Bill Nye. The two men in the photos are artists Aldo Spadoni (left) and Jon Ramer (right) of IAAA.

  • We had a big party at Riff Raff Studio in Silver Lake in Los Angeles. There were red lights fittingly bathing the party in a Martian glow.

  • Cara Santa Maria snaps a shot of Robert Hoffman, Alison Haislip, Tay Zonday, Rick Fox, Isaiah Mustafa, Randy Pitchford and others.

  • "Please find the attached photos from our trip to Kennedy Space Center to view the launch of the MSL Curiosity in November 2011. I am a librarian in Tennessee. Our library has offered a space science based afterschool program for the past three years. This year, we offered a program titled "Countdown to Curiosity". I attended a workshop at KSC with several fellow librarians. At the end of the week, we were invited to view the launch of the MSL Curiosity. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for my son and I."

  • NASA "AVT"

    Nasa Apartment Viewing Terminal

  • Mars celebrates the Mars Landing

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/holyfrak"><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="http://s.huffpost.com/images/profile/user_placeholder.gif" /></a><a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/holyfrak">holyfrak</a>:<br />Our 2 yr old son Mars (along with a couple thousand other people) at the Griffith Observatory celebrating Curiosity's successful landing.


"What's so special about Esperance is that there was enough water not only for reactions that produced clay minerals, but also enough to flush out ions set loose by those reactions, so that Opportunity can clearly see the alteration," said Scott McLennan of the State University of New York.

Lead investigator Steve Squyres said that the "water that moved through fractures during this rock's history would have provided more favourable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rocks".

The new evidence supports the discovery earlier this year by Nasa's one-ton robot Curiosity rover, which landed on the planet only last year but has already shown that the planet could have supported microbial life in the past.

Opportunity had been exploring Cape York for about 20 months, but it is now heading to another area known as Solander Point, where it will spend the Martian winter.

On the way the rover will break the international record for longest distance travelled on another world, currently held by the Russian Moon robot Lunokhod 2 at 23 miles.

Among its other finds, Opportunity recently discovered a series of metal spheres on the planet.

CORRECTION: The headline of this article originally stated the Mars rover had discovered evidence for ancient life on Mars. The rover actually discovered evidence of conditions that could once have supported life on Mars.