NASA rover data shows Mars had the ingredients needed for life

08 June, 2018, 12:26 | Author: Lucy Floyd
  • Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

The vast majority of methane on Earth, at least, has a biological origin, so its presence on Mars is significant to the possibility of actually discovering life on Mars.

That may be because numerous compounds, such as thiophene, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide, had sulfur atoms in their molecular structure - which would strengthen the relatively fragile organic molecules, allowing them to survive the radiation bombarding the planet's surface for so long. "We know that on Earth microorganisms eat all sorts of organics", said Jen Eigenbrode, a biochemist at the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Centre.

"Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life", Eigenbrode continued, "organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes".

Today, in a much-anticipated announcement live-streamed by NASA, it announced both an abundance of organic molecules and seasonal, recurrent releases of methane gas into the atmosphere of planet Mars. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes.

The findings were also remarkable in that they showed that organic material can be preserved for billions of years on the harsh Martian surface. If there was, then that life would have left behind organic molecules when it decayed.

As some of those molecules are often fragments of kerogens - organic molecules known to be the residue of living matter - the paper's authors cautiously suggest the Martian finds could suggest biological processes once took place on Mars.

The new findings - of "tough" organic molecules in 3-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 peer-reviewed journal Science.

It's the first time "something repeatable in the methane story" has been observed on Mars, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

Over five years, Curiosity has used its Tunable Laser Spectrometer to measure methane in the atmosphere at the Gale crater. All we can say from the data is that there is complex organic matter similar to what is found in many equivalent aged rocks on the Earth.

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"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP.

Scientists hope to further the search for signs of life on Mars with the European and Russian rover, ExoMars, scheduled to land in 2021. Certainly, there are geological processes that could make methane levels change over the Martian year, she said.

According to a report by Science Alert, NASA rover Curiosity's drill bit provided samples of the soil, from two different parts of the Gale crater, offering deeper insights into the organic chemistry of the 300-million-year-old planet.

But the scientists can not say what the larger molecules were or how they formed.

It successfully tested a new drilling method in May on the Red Planet, making a 50-millimetre deep hole in a target called "Duluth".

The methane is cool, whether it's linked to life or not.

"What this new study is showing in some detail is the discovery of complex and diverse organic compounds in the sediments".

In December 2012, the rover's two-year mission was extended indefinitely.

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