Organic molecules on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

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.

NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars has found complex organic matter on the surface of the red planet. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) arm of the rover found seasonal fluctuations of methane gas in the planet's atmosphere as well as organic material from shallow-soil sample analyses from Gale crater, which was a lake some 3 billion years ago. While water-rock chemistry might have produced those variations, NASA said it "cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins". While Curiosity encountered organic carbon on the planet's surface back in 2012 and again in 2013, NASA said Thursday this most recent find was in concentrations 100 times greater than earlier detections.

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

Knowing that these molecules and compounds were present, then, gives new strength to the idea that life originated or existed on Mars and that more work by the Martian rovers can uncover the past. Tellingly, the methane levels appear to periodically spike in time with Martian seasons, being about three times higher in the sunny summertime than in the darker, colder winter. These organic molecules were found at the bottom of what once was a lake bed, in rocks 3 billion years old. Unfortunately, the new findings do not allow us to say anything about the presence or absence of life on Mars now or in the past.

Whether anywhere other than Earth has harboured life, perhaps even in microbial form, is one of the paramount questions in science. The material was located in the first layers of rock, some four miles away from where the chlorinated molecules had been found.

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.

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Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lakebed have yielded complex organic molecules that look strikingly similar to the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth.

Seasonal changes in methane at Gale Crater.

On top of that, after keeping close tabs on methane levels in the Martian atmosphere, scientists have finally confirmed something weird is definitely going on, and they think they know what's causing it.

"This is an important finding", says Samuel Kounaves, a Tufts University chemist and former lead scientist for NASA's Phoenix Mars lander.

Webster theorizes the methane created either now or long ago is seeping from deep underground reservoirs up through cracks and fissures in the crust. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about". "Everything that was needed to support life was there". The livestream should kick off shortly before the press conference is scheduled to begin, and as with all NASA events it will be live streamed so we can all enjoy it from the comfort of our office desks.

These may be "organic" in that they include carbon, but we're not aware of these being precursors to anything biological.

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