NASA finds organic matter on Mars

James Marshall
June 8, 2018

'I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet'.

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

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

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, though they can also be produced by chemical reactions unrelated to life.

The discoveries were found using the USA space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

As promised, NASA has announced new milestone Mars discoveries, namely the presence of organic molecules and seasonal changes in atmospheric methane. "Biological, geological and meteoritic sources are all possible", they wrote.

Since it landed at the Gale Crater in 2012, the Curiosity Rover has been sniffing out methane in the area.

The revelations build on a similar announcement made by NASA in 2014, where scientists confirmed that they had discovered chlorinated molecules on the planet for the first time. Curiosity has detected large organic molecules inside ancient Martian rocks, as well as methane cycles now active on the planet. That's a harder question to address scientifically, but I think that we need to give the search for life on Mars due diligence.

"There's three possible sources for the organic material", said astrobiologist Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Dr Eigenbrode hopes further details about the nature of the carbon molecules will emerge with future missions, such as the European Space Agencies ExoMars Mission or NASA's Mars 2020 mission.

Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater.

The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis. Understandably, the authors of the two papers, published in the journal Science, are very careful not to make the claim that they have discovered life on Mars. However, finding organic material in such abundance suggests that it potentially has biological origins-either from bacteria or other forms of life that existed long ago. With five years of data from a single location, they now have answers.

There's enough ambient carbon and hydrogen in the solar system that they react to form basic organic compounds pretty frequently, even without biology involved, ten Kate said. The rover spotted the chemical signature in samples take from sedimentary rocks the formed some 3 billion years ago. For example, scientists want to know if it has "Mars quakes".

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water - an essential ingredient for life as we know it - to pool at the surface. "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".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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