A NASA rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of Mars and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane in findings released on Thursday that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life.
Three-and-a-half billion years ago, the floor of Gale Crater on Mars was the muddy bottom of a large lake where sediment was deposited and, over time, turned into a fine-grained layered rock. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might.
The vast majority of methane on Earth, at least, has a biological origin, so its presence on Mars is significant to the possibility of actually discovering life on Mars.
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"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", cautioned Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a NASA release.
"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington.
Knowing that these molecules and compounds were present, then, gives new strength to the idea that life originated or existed on Mars and that more work by the Martian rovers can uncover the past. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter".
The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said. Maybe there are subsurface Martian bacteria eating that methane, Tanya Harrison, director of research for Arizona State University's Space Technology and Science ("NewSpace") Initiative, told Gizmodo.
Another mission, Mars InSight, is heading to Mars right now to study the geological life of the planet. After carefully accounting for background contamination from SAM, Freissinet and her colleagues baked 3-billion-year-old mudstone samples at over 500 degrees C, a temperature at which perchlorates should have fully burned away.
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"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability".
"People have been wondering about whether there might be life on Mars forever and finally ... they've done all the tests they've modified everything to be able to show that in fact there's organic matter on Mars".
"There's a new mission in the planning where they'll be able to drill much deeper than the Curiosity rover can", Freeman says. It arrived at Mars in 2016 and is now mapping concentrations of methane and other gases from on high. Hell comes from Mars, NASA, and it's only been two years since we cleaned up the last incident of Mars Hell.
The team picked up a welter of closely related organic signals reflecting dozens or hundreds of types of small carbon molecules, probably short rings and strands called aromatics and aliphatics, respectively. However, the abundances of methane measured are greater than models predict should occur, meaning we still don't know exactly how they are produced.
"The unbelievable consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars".
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