NASA finds 3 bn years old organic molecules in rocks on Mars

NASA
Curiosity Drill Hole

U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) issued the following statement regarding NASA's Curiosity rover's groundbreaking discovery on Mars.

The organic material was unearthed in 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rock samples extracted by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite and then heated to 500 degrees Celsius to release its molecular constituents. The discovery is said to be the most compelling evidence that billions of years ago, the parched Red Planet once consisted of carbon-based compounds essential to sustain life.

Also, thanks to the longevity of the Curiosity rover, scientists have been able to observe a "breathing" of methane in the Martian atmosphere, with the amount increasing in the summer and reducing in the winter.

While the discovery is one of the most tantalising searches yet to indicate that biological processes were (or maybe still are) responsible for these organic materials, it is not definitive proof of life on Mars.

Since Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, only recent drills into the Mars' gale crater show evidence of life.

Referring to the findings regarding organic compounds and methane, Webster said, "They hint at an earlier time on Mars when water was present and the existence of primitive life forms was possible".

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Christopher Webster, an atmospheric science research fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said it is possible existing microbes are contributing to the Martian atmospheric methane. The experiment involved scientists heating the rock fragments to more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a close inspection of the molecules that wafted away. The good news is that the findings pave the way and further direct the Martian quest for life. "Past detections have been so faint that they could be just contamination", the journal said.

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground. Thus, there is a hope that the changes in methane content in the atmosphere are because of the microbiological activities as they release methane as a waste or byproduct. So they looked elsewhere.

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

"While we don't know the source of the material, the incredible consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biogeochemist at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, explained. "Everything that was needed to support life was there".

Clearly, there are more questions about Mars that need answering.

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