NASA’s Mars Rover Has Found Organic Matter On The Planet's Surface

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

While the new results are far from a confirmation of life on Mars, scientists believe they support earlier hypotheses that the Red Planet was once clement and habitable for microbial life.

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

That may be because numerous compounds, such as thiophene, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide, had sulfur atoms in their molecular structure - which would strengthen the relatively fragile organic molecules, allowing them to survive the radiation bombarding the planet's surface for so long.

In 2012, NASA released evidence from the Curiosity rover that suggested that Gale Crater on Mars "held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources". That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbor and might still exist there.

"The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up", said Curiosity's project scientist Ashwin Vasavada said. What it HAS found is organic molecules and seasonal variations in the level of methane in the atmosphere, with more in summer and less in winter. On Earth, 1,800 out of every billion molecules in the atmosphere is methane, and 95 percent of it comes for biological sources: Burning fossil fuels, decomposing debris, burping cows.

Experts have hailed the two new studies as milestones for astrobiology.

"The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time", Kate said.

Inorganic carbon is carbon that is found in compounds that are completely unlike biological molecules.

Some geologists devote their careers to seeking organic inclusions in Earth rocks, hoping to find ancient fossils of terrestrial life. Unfortunately, the new findings do not allow us to say anything about the presence or absence of life on Mars now or in the past.

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The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

To get firmer answers, researchers will need to get equipment to Mars that's sensitive enough to detect life's thumb on the chemical scales. The methane signal has been observed for almost 3 Martian years (nearly 6 Earth years), peaking each summer.

It's the first time "something repeatable in the methane story" has been observed on Mars, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

"We have detected the bits and pieces of something bigger", said Eigenbrode. "It's tripling. that's a huge, huge difference". "So way under the ground this methane is trapped".

Other explanations are possible: methane can be created by geological activity, by the interaction of water and rocks in the subsurface.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample - fragments of larger organic molecules that don't vaporize easily.

Curiosity drilled down and found the evidence in the top five centimetres of rock, a surprise given that the surface of Mars is hammered by radiation from space, and over time the light would break down organic matter. So they looked elsewhere.

So the rover was directed to drive about 4 miles away to the base of Mt.

Additional data from the robotic probe confirms the detection of "seasonal patterns" in methane levels, NASA geophysicist Ashwin Vasvada said in the live-streamed announcement.

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