NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Organic Matter on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Organic Matter on Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover has discovered ancient organic molecules on Mars, embedded within sedimentary rocks that are billions of years old.

NASA released a statement this week announcing the space agency would be holding a live discussion on new science results from its Mars Curiosity rover. This includes findings about Mars' atmosphere and organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones in the Gale crater.

While these findings are not necessarily evidence of life on Mars, it is a "good sign for future missions exploring the planet's surface and subsurface", according to NASA.

And in a separate report in Science set to publish Friday, scientists revealed the Curiosity rover has also detected methane on the Martian surface in concentrations that vary with the seasons.

Curiosity sampled sites by drilling five centimeters below the surface in the Gale crater, which is where the rover landed in 2012.

Nasa confirmed it had uncovered various "organic compounds" and renewed hope for Curiosity's search for life on Mars.

"If there are no organics, we can pretty much forget about there being life or ever having been life on Mars", says Dr. Weintraub.

Two rock samples taken by NASA's Curiosity rover were found to contain organic molecules. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars' surface. To look for organics, Curiosity drills about two inches into a rock, collects the dust created, then lights it on fire to break the samples down to their chemical components (which is a similar process to Viking's). And now they've added a catalogue of organic molecules to that list. Close up, the veins have the appearance and chemistry of material that has been produced by reaction of water with the rocks, at a time when water was stable at the surface for extended periods of time. "We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track".

Organic molecules are considered one of the basic building blocks of life.

It's impossible to say whether ancient life explains the Martian organics, however.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", said Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper.

By examining data spanning almost three Martian years (six Earth years), Webster and his colleagues discerned the first repeating pattern in Martian methane.

On Earth, we have a process by which underwater volcanoes interact with rock, producing methane that feeds bacteria. Nearly exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish. Specifically, NASA says that lower levels of methane were found to decrease in the winter and peak in the summer on an annual basis. "Now we have data to confirm that there's a seasonal cycle, suggesting the methane is being generated by something".

In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. They therefore suggest that methane could be trapped at depth, gradually seeping to the surface. And life as we know it requires organic molecules to exist. Perhaps, some researchers speculated, Mars's remaining organics-and thus any signs of past or present life-were locked away in its subsurface depths.

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