More signs of past - and possibly present - habitability of Mars

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft - and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars - are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet.

The new findings - "tough" organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere - appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life, NASA says. Organic matter can be one of several things: a record detailing ancient life, a food source for life or something that exists in the place of life. "It probably indicates more active water in the subsurface than we understood", scientist Kirsten Siebach, Martian geologist at Rice University not involved with the studies, told Gizmodo. The organic material discovered on Mars is rich in sulphur, which would have also helped to preserve it.

It was to a great fanfare of publicity that researchers announced they had found evidence for past life on Mars in 1996. 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.

From everything we can tell of the chemistry and the minerals deposited in the Gale crater where Curiosity is stationed, "we think it was a habitable environment", Jennifer Eigenbrode from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center told Gizmodo.

Curiosity rover on Mars.

NASA scientists announced at a press conference that soil samples analyzed from a dry lake bed on the red planet's surface had revealed traces of organic molecules that have been apparently preserved on Mars' surface for billions of years, USA Today reported. "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".

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Curiosity also has confirmed seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes.

NASA's Curiosity rover used an instrument called SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) to detect seasonal changes in atmospheric methane in Gale Crater.

NASA also has another rover in the works with its Mars 2020 mission, which plans to drill cores and set them aside for a possible future pickup and return to Earth.

The surface of Mars may be inhospitable today, but there is strong evidence that the Martian climate once accommodated liquid water - which, as most of you will know, is one of the key components to life - to pool at the surface. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade.

NASA has been searching for confirmation of organic molecules on Mars since the 1970s when it sent the Viking landers to the planet.

"We've considered three possible sources for the organics: geology, meteorites and biology", she said.

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