June 23, 2018

NASA's Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars

08 June 2018, 07:18 | Edward Lowe

Getty IMMINENT NASA is to reveal findings from its Mars mission

     IMMINENT NASA is to reveal findings from its Mars mission

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.

NASA's Rover hasn't just been sniffing the air as it's trundled across the Gale Crater - it has also been drilling just below the surface of the 3.5 billion-year-old lakebed in search of organic molecules. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbour and still might.

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".

NASA's Curiosity rover has previously found organic matter on Mars.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life". In chemistry, almost all molecules containing both carbon and hydrogen are organic compounds.

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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.

Organic molecules are the basic building blocks of life - and they are also left behind by living organisms.

"These clathrates lock the methane inside a water-ice crystal structure and are incredibly stable for millions of years until environmental conditions change and suddenly they can release that gas", says Duffy.

It's impossible to say whether ancient life explains the Martian organics, however.

The Gale Crater was probably habitable 3.5 billion years ago, based on what Curiosity has shown us.

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Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water - an essential ingredient for life as we know it - to pool at the surface.

"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".

"It could be from rock processes", processes that have been going on during the billions of years since Mars formed. Occasionally, rocks can make produce them on their own through geological processes, and meteorites can also bring them from neighboring planets. On Mars, where we only have a few molecules from a remote probe, this stuff is light years away from being conclusive.

"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability". But the origin of methane on Mars has always been debated. Specifically, NASA says that lower levels of methane were found to decrease in the winter and peak in the summer on an annual basis. "And then we went, 'oops, not only did we not find it, but we don't really know what we're looking for if it's not exactly like Earth.' And maybe that was not the best way to go about it". Methane is another organic molecule.

It "defines how questions will be asked and pursued in the next stage of Mars exploration", Anbar, who was not involved in the study, told AFP by email. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make vehicle tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

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