NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars

NASA news conference Mars announcement

While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

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. Hell comes from Mars, NASA, and it's only been two years since we cleaned up the last incident of Mars Hell. Mars2020 will shed light on the organic molecules-and prepare a sample that some future mission could bring back to Earth. Some of our planet's earliest organisms may have been methanogens - microbes that eat organic molecules and exhale methane gas.

That Mars possesses organic molecules is not surprising. So the Martian traces of organic matter do hint that the basic conditions for life to form were present on Mars at around the same time they existed on Earth.

Spikes and plumes of methane in Mars's thin atmosphere have been detected by several missions over more than two decades, but they have been frustrating to study, said Christopher Webster, who led the methane study.

They don't exactly roll off the tongue, but researchers believe that these are fragments of larger molecules that were present on Mars billions of years ago.

While it could be produced by microorganisms under the surface of Mars, it could also be produced by non-biological processes such as chemical reactions in rocks, or the breakdown of organic matter in dust delivered by comets or meteors, by UV radiation.

In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. "And it makes us more confident that if biomarkers" - or direct evidence of biologic activity - "are there, we might find them".

"All sorts of big questions could be answered by finding life on Mars or by not finding life on Mars", says David Weintraub, a professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and author of the book "Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go".

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The search for organic molecules actually began on Mars in 1976 via Viking 1 and II, so the finding of them by Curiosity is an achievement a long time coming. The Viking Project was the first U.S. mission to safely land spacecraft on the Martian surface, as well as send back images. "If you explore both of those paths forward, it's astounding", Eigenbrode said.

However, so far, tests were unable to determine how the organic compounds were formed.

Previously, it was an open question whether signs of life might be preserved on the now-harsh Martian surface.

"What this new study is showing in some detail is the discovery of complex and diverse organic compounds in the sediments".

The next stage might not be just about past life, Pontefract says. Eigenbrode says the analyzed rocks came from the bottom of what was once a lake at a time when Mars was a much warmer, wetter place.

Then she looked at the analyzer results again.

"Once it's on the surface, the temperature on the surface regulates the way in which it holds on to the methane through 'stickiness, ' or surface adsorption as we call it", he says. For extinct life, scientists have an idea where lakes and rivers used to flow and sedimentary rocks might have built up, preserving life that may have flourished around those Martian waters. "And Mars always surprises us".

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