NASA Reveals Organic Molecules and Seasonal Methane Spikes Found on Mars

08 June, 2018, 16:27 | Author: Priscilla Morrison
  • NASA conference Mars Curiosity Rover

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

The case for past habitability on the Red Planet is bolstered by the discovery of preserved organic compounds revealed today, as they are as old as the around 3.5 billion year old sedimentary rocks in which they were found.

NASA scientists reported Thursday the Mars rover Curiosity has found potential building blocks of life in an ancient lakebed.

NASA says the findings "suggest the planet could have supported ancient life" and serves as additional evidence dealing with the question concerning any current life on Mars. Still, neither find constitutes evidence of life, as Curiosity team members were careful to stress yesterday; organics and methane can be produced by geological processes, and the origin of the stuff Curiosity observed remains unknown.

Trace amounts of carbon found in the prehistoric rock were 100 times greater than any prior discovery of organic carbon on Mars' surface.

The traces of methane on Mars are tantalizing to biologists eager for evidence of life.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the space said that with these findings "Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life". The changes were observed over three Martian years, which are equivalent to almost half a dozen Earth years. "That doesn't mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life".




Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the awesome consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said. Such reactions could create enough energy to feed microbial life. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode.

Maybe even billions of years - the Gale crater, named after Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, is up to 3.8 billion years old, and may have once held a lake.

The sediments, analysed by the SAM instrument on Curiosity, come from just below the surface, where they have been shielded from most of the UV radiation that would break down organic molecules exposed on the surface. "Everything that was needed to support life was there". The methane concentrations peak near the end of the northern hemisphere's summer, then dwindle in the winter.

Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, explained that the objective of the mission was to explore the possibility of sustaining life on Mars.

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground. 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. After the first Mariner missions of the 1960s, even these were ruled out and the hope was that when the Viking landers touched down in 1976, they'd be able to find signs of biological processes.

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