Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars

NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars

One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. Curiosity reports that methane levels on Mars go up and down in a predictable cycle.

The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis.

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 thing about the chlorinated molecules is that it's not what you'd typically find in natural samples, and so we weren't sure what the significance was at the time", Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, lead author of one of the papers, said in a briefing. "It tells us that this ancient environment on Mars could have supported life", Eigenbrode said. It has also found evidence in Mars' atmosphere, relating to the search for current life on the red planet.

In December 2012, the rover's two-year mission was extended indefinitely. After all, these are just organic molecules on their own, so we're still in the stage of chemistry, rather than biology.

One thing is for sure, though - whatever we can figure out about the chemistry of Mars, it's nearly certainly going to add precious details to our understanding of life in the cosmos.

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While we know that Mars was habitable in the past, the case demonstrates just how hard it will be to ever prove the existence of past life on its surface. Other processes that have nothing to do with living organisms can create organic compounds as well. Samples of ancient mudstone yielded a diversity of organic molecules in SAM's oven-and in a separate study, five years' worth of atmospheric samples gathered by SAM tracked fluctuating levels of methane that peaked in the Martian summer. The rover has not found evidence of life itself. This doesn't constitute proof that life existed on Mars, though. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter", said Eigenbrode. Combined with high-energy ultraviolet light and cosmic rays streaming in from space, perchlorates would destroy any organic material on the surface, leaving little to be seen by carbon-seeking landers and rovers.

Leading contenders have included some sort of chemical reaction based on a rock called olivine, meteorites dropping organic materials into the atmosphere, or a release from a sub-surface reservoir close to the surface.

Organic molecules are the building blocks 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. Or it could be ancient, belched out billions of years ago by geologic or biological processes and then trapped in matrices of ice and rock that unfreeze when warmed by the sun.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample - fragments of larger organic molecules that don't vaporize easily. Over time, a picture of the ebb and flow of methane on Mars has emerged.

NASA announced the discoveries in a livestream this afternoon, saying Curiosity found the latest evidence for ancient life on Mars in rocks.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said.

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