NASA’s Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars

07 June, 2018, 23:54 | Author: Darnell Taylor

New Mars discoveries are advancing the case for possible life on the red planet, past or even present.

The complex organic matter was found buried - and preserved - in ancient, three-billion-year-old sediments, suggesting that the planet could have once been home to life. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbour and still might.

The rover also found seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane. Researchers say they can't rule out a biological source. "Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper".

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA's (European Space Agency's) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft - and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars - are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet.

A new analysis of data gathered by Curiosity has confirmed a long-term pattern of methane highs and lows, varying between 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion.

Dr Webster said the difference was much larger than what you would expect if the methane was produced by the breakdown of organic matter from space. "That doesn't mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life", he added. "We were just blown away", he said.

"For the first time we have something that we can get a handle on", said Dr Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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"The seasonal methane peaks in the summer of the Martian northern hemisphere so the source has to be affected by those increasing temperatures from greater sunlight", astrophysicist Alan Duffy from Swinburne University in Australia told ScienceAlert.

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover drilled this hole to collect sample material from a rock target called "Buckskin" on July 30, 2015, during the 1060th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars.

"We have no proof that the methane is formed biologically, but we can not rule it out, even with this new data set", Webster said.

Leading contenders have included some sort of chemical reaction based on a rock called olivine, meteorites dropping organic materials into the atmosphere, or a release from a sub-surface reservoir close to the surface.

Detecting this organic molecule in the atmosphere, combined with the finding of organic compounds in the soil, has strong implications about potential life on Mars in its past.

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers.

As with methane, there could well be non-biological explanations for the presence of carbon-containing molecules on Mars, such as geologic processes or impacts by asteroids, comet, meteors and interplanetary dust.

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