Published: Thu, June 07, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

NASA’s Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars


'I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet'.

The Curiosity rover found organic material and mysterious methane on Mars that suggest evidence that the planet could have supported ancient life, NASA announced Thursday.

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.

On top of that, after keeping close tabs on methane levels in the Martian atmosphere, scientists have finally confirmed something weird is definitely going on, and they think they know what's causing it.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins.

NASA's Curiosity Rover has explored the surface of Mars for five years, and has recently resumed drilling into rocks on the surface.

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".

Three Mars years' worth of data shows that along with spikes in methane, levels swing between 0.24 and 0.65 parts per billion, peaking in the northern hemisphere summer.

"Both these findings are breakthroughs in astrobiology", writes Utrecht University geoscientist Inge Loes ten Kate in this week's issue of Science.

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These might explain the increase in molecules, but they do still leave its rapid vanishing act wanting of an explanation.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", said Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper.

Just a couple of weeks ago, NASA announced that Curiosity had successfully drilled a hole using this new technique, and its handlers were excited that the rover could get back to work.

There is a seasonal variation to the methane that repeats, which means the methane is being released from the Martian surface or from reservoirs beneath the surface.

"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.

Detecting this organic molecule in the atmosphere, combined with the finding of organic compounds in the soil, has strong implications about potential life on Mars in its past.

They hit pay dirt about 6.5 kilometres away, at two sites near Pahrump Hills at the base of Mt Sharp. The twin Vikings came up pretty much empty.

Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led the organics study, said she's intrigued by the possibility that life might have existed and adapted on Mars. Occasionally, rocks can make produce them on their own through geological processes, and meteorites can also bring them from neighboring planets. "We need to go to places that we think are the most likely places to find it".

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