NASA’s Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

New Mars discoveries are advancing the case for possible life on the red planet, past or even present.

The "building blocks" for life have been discovered in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars, NASA scientists announced Thursday.

NASA's hyped-up announcement concerning new discoveries on Mars did not disappoint as the space agency reports it has found "ancient organic matter" and "mysterious methane" on the planet.

The organic molecules, discovered in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, contain carbon and hydrogen, and might also include oxygen and nitrogen. The rover, they announced, had spotted organic molecules in ancient Red Planet rocks and identified a seasonal cycle in the concentration of atmospheric methane, suggesting that the gas is leaking from underground reservoirs.

NASA said that water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists said they can't rule out the possibility of biological origins. In the ashes that remained they found thiophenes-relatively small and simple ringlike molecules containing both carbon and sulfur.

"They could be changed from something like we've observed at the base of the mountain into methane that eventually makes its way back in to the atmosphere", she said. For present life, some scientists say we should look below the surface, in soils or in caves, where there might be liquid water still flowing and organic compounds around. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine.

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"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space", said Jen Eigenbrode, a study author and research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. They thought mudstone rocks, formed from silt accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake, might hold some clues and analyzed the powdered samples from Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite.

Even though the TGO mission can't get as close to the source as the Curiosity Rover, Dr Webster said it could locate potential areas where methane is concentrated or coming from. That's a harder question to address scientifically, but I think that we need to give the search for life on Mars due diligence.

Now, with years of Curiosity's atmospheric readings at their disposal, Webster and his colleagues were able to analyze 55 Earth months (or roughly three Martian years) of data, finding that there were indeed low levels of background radiation - and that it seemed to experience seasonal surges, almost tripling at its peak near summer's end in the northern hemisphere (and winter's end in the south). Using SAM, Webster and his colleagues have found a persistent background level of methane in the atmosphere above Gale Crater over the last five years of about 0.4 part per billion-a scarcely detectable trace, to be sure, but enough to pique astrobiologists' interest.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about".

NASA's space boffins were excited to reveal not one but two monumental discoveries during a live press conference on Thursday. Mars doesn't recycle its rock the way that Earth does-maybe its ancient dust can teach us a thing or two about our own planet's history, said Siebach.

They heated the sample to more than 500 degrees Celsius and measured tiny organic matter releasing from it.

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