Mars Rover Curiosity Finds More Clues to the Potential for Life

Mars Curiosity rover selfie

"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. What they found are organic molecules but not something in a molecular form that is important for life. Organic molecules contain carbon, the chemical element central to life.

Scientists reported Thursday that NASA's Curiosity rover has found potential building blocks of life in an ancient Martian lake bed.

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.

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", cautioned Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a NASA release. The 2020 rover will include an advanced spectrometer to scan for organic molecules. The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide.

Regardless, the detection is a technical achievement, said Williford, because it demonstrates that organic molecules can persist near Mars's surface for billions of years.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP. There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff.

"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said. On Earth, 1,800 out of every billion molecules in the atmosphere is methane, and 95 percent of it comes for biological sources: Burning fossil fuels, decomposing debris, burping cows. "Those organic molecules could have come from life".

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Curiosity's project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: "The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up".

NASA calls the Curiosity rover the "largest and most capable" device ever constructed to explore Mars. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.

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.

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said. About 3.5 billion years ago, research suggests, this pockmark on the Martian surface was brimming with water. Or reactions driven by Mars's ancient volcanoes could have formed the compounds from primordial carbon dioxide.

NASA will use both these discoveries to inform the design of its upcoming Mars 2020 rover.

This latest discovery of organics does more than open the door for more study of organic matter on Mars.

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. "But it doesn't tell us that life was there".

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