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.
In puffs of gas from rocks more than 3 billion years old dug up by one of NASA's robotic explorers on Mars, scientists have identified several complex organic molecules - possible building blocks for ancient life. Alas, still no aliens: the rover found some rocks-some billion-year-old rocks-containing "ancient organic material".
This engineering marvel, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, has revolutionized our understanding of the red planet. (3) report a strong seasonal variation in atmospheric methane, the simplest organic molecule, in the martian atmosphere. "As NASA put it, Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins". But now new results from NASA's Curiosity rover, including the discovery of ancient organic material, have revived the hope of doing just that.
In 2015, however, Curiosity made the first tentative detection of organic molecules on Mars, finding evidence of chlorine-contaminated carbon compounds in soil samples heated to more than 800 degrees Celsius in SAM. "Organic matter" includes a whole host of compounds with carbon atoms in them.
Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years. "Organic matter" in this context doesn't mean anything we'd recognize from our lives on Earth.
Biogeochemist and geologist Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is lead author of one of the two new Science papers, the one related to organic molecules. But it has found the ingredients for life on Mars.
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"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability".
Dr Eigenbrode said: "The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space". 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.
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. A likely candidate: "serpentinization", where water and minerals react, releasing methane. It has been tacking across the floor of Gale Crater on Mars for five years, returning stunning images of Martian landscapes, with vistas opening up to show rocky outcrops seamed with mineral veins. "It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there", explained Eigenbrode. The methane concentrations peak near the end of the northern hemisphere's summer, then dwindle in the winter. Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said in the statement.
He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground.
"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP.