The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) arm of the rover found seasonal fluctuations of methane gas in the planet's atmosphere as well as organic material from shallow-soil sample analyses from Gale crater, which was a lake some 3 billion years ago.
"I don't believe there's life on Mars at the present", Freeman says, because Mars is very dry, very cold and lacks much of an atmosphere. In addition, some of the readings could have come from contamination that had tagged along from Earth; others could have been produced in combustion as the sample was heated, which may have been the case in an earlier detection of organics by Curiosity. "Biological, geological and meteoritic sources are all possible", they wrote. Both discoveries were made possible by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover and have been detailed in a pair of new studies.
"Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper". That's because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with radiation that can break down organic compounds.
The press conference is set to kick off at 2 p.m. EDT today, and while NASA obviously hasn't revealed exactly what it has in store, there's a few things we do know.
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Still, "we're in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life", NASA biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode said in a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science. The Viking Project was the first U.S. mission to safely land spacecraft on the Martian surface, as well as send back images. "Organic matter" in this context doesn't mean anything we'd recognize from our lives on Earth. Then the scientists sifted through the results to figure out what might be genuine Martian organics. What do we stand to gain from these missions anyway?
"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.
The discoveries were found using the US space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.
The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake.
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Some of the new science instruments included on the next Mars rover include an X-ray spectrometer, ultraviolet laser, excited rings of carbon atoms, and a ground-penetrating radar that will allow the space agency to look under the surface of Mars up to 30 feet deep depending on terrain.
Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the fantastic consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.
Excitingly, the material discovered on Mars is similar to terrestrial kerogen.
"We have no proof that the methane is formed biologically, but we can not rule it out, even with this new data set", Webster said. This is also when life was evolving on our own planet. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it's "geologically alive", or active below the surface.
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