Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

Mars Rover Curiosity Finds More Clues to the Potential for Life

Mars Rover Curiosity Finds More Clues to the Potential for Life

And while methane had previously been found in Mars' atmosphere in "large, unpredictable plumes", NASA said it has now found methane levels that follow seasonal trend changes with more methane appearing in warm summer months before dropping in the winter. Those molecules are familiar building blocks for life here on Earth, including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

No matter its objective, these work as "chemical clues" for researchers about Mars. So like the organic molecules, it's not an unambiguous biosignature. "And what it does, it gives us a key to unlocking the mysteries associated with Mars methane because now we have something to test our models and our understanding against". Mission scientists announced today in a paper published in the journal Science that Curiosity discovered a whole catalogue of preserved organic matter in the first rock layers that the rover checked there.

Naturally, the usual UFO fans have jumped on this and are suggesting it's probably aliens - or at least some sign of life on the Red Planet.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, said: "With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life".

Almost six years into its survey of a site called Gale Crater on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has delivered what may be the biggest discovery yet in its quest for signs of habitability and life: Organic molecules are abundant in Red Planet rocks, and the simplest organic molecule, methane, seasonally blows through the thin Martian air.

Regardless, the detection is a technical achievement, said Williford, because it demonstrates that organic molecules can persist near Mars's surface for billions of years. And Curiosity dug a little deeper beneath the surface, which is blasted with radiation, to see what stories the soil had to tell. Curiosity Rover's Twitter featured a cheeky call asking followers to tune it to see its findings.

Contained below the 3.5 billion-year-old mudstone was a fine-grained sedimentary rock. The 2020 rover will include an advanced spectrometer to scan for organic molecules. Drilling beneath the surface, rather than sampling what was on top like Viking did, also helped. She pointed out that the surface of Mars is regularly exposed to space radiation, and that radiation and chemicals typically break down organic matter.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode.

Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater. With five years of data from a single location, they now have answers.

There is a seasonal variation to the methane that repeats, which means the methane is being released from the Martian surface or from reservoirs beneath the surface. Methane is ubiquitous in places like the atmospheres of gas-giant planets. But the origin of methane on Mars has always been debated. That could even be happening beneath the surface now, the researchers said.

As promised, NASA has announced new milestone Mars discoveries, namely the presence of organic molecules and seasonal changes in atmospheric methane. "Curiosity has shown that Gale Crater was habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, with conditions comparable to those on the early Earth, where life evolved around that time".

Although tantalizing, the two findings remain far from definitive when it comes to past or present life on Mars.

For years, NASA's Curiosity rover has patiently gathered samples on the surface of Mars. For example, scientists want to know if it has "Mars quakes".

Another mission, Mars InSight, is heading to Mars right now to study the geological life of the planet. Plus, scientists don't know what the original molecules were before Curiosity heated the rocks to take the measurement, Utrecht University scientist Inge Loes ten Kate, who was not involved with the research, told Gizmodo.

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