Compelling evidence emerges for organic chemicals on the Red Planet

Ismael LynchJun 09, 2018

"When you work with something as insane as a rover on Mars, with the most complex instrument ever sent to space, it seems like we're doing what may have been perceived earlier as impossible", says lead author Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biogeochemist at NASA Goddard.

The best evidence that life once existed on Mars has been revealed in 3-billion-year old organic matter in rocks and cyclical emissions of methane from the planet's surface, NASA scientists disclosed on Thursday in a press conference explaining recent discoveries by the Curiosity rover. The findings add to evidence that the crater the rover landed in was once a lake and offer the tantalising possibility that it could even have supported life billions of years ago. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbor and might still exist there. What it HAS found is organic molecules and seasonal variations in the level of methane in the atmosphere, with more in summer and less in winter.

About 95 per cent of the methane in Earth's atmosphere is produced from biological activity, though the scientists say it is too soon to know if the Martian methane also is related to life.

The rover drilled samples from sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four sites in the Gale Crater, which it has been exploring for years. NASA calls the Curiosity the "largest and most capable" rover ever to make contact with Mars. 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.

Almost all of Earth's methane is biologically produced, so when methane was first detected in Mars' atmosphere in 2003 it immediately generated excitement - although its origins remain unknown.

It's the first time "something repeatable in the methane story" has been observed on Mars, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

This does not mean life was discovered on Mars... yet.

Scientists are investigating but say it's too early to say where the molecules have come from. The 96-mile crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, was most likely formed by meteor impact between 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. The rock samples were analysed by a device that uses an oven to heat the samples to 500 degrees Celsius to release organic molecules from the powdered rock.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover hasn't found signs of alien life, but one of its wheeled brethren just might do so a few short years from now.

Are there signs of life on Mars?

The European Space Agency's ExoMars rover will also arrive in 2021 and begin measuring the atmosphere and drilling up to two metres below the surface. The methane could even be trapped in water-based crystals beneath the surface. The methane signal has been observed for almost 3 Martian years (nearly 6 Earth years), peaking each summer.

"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.

In a report by Space.com, NASA said the "live discussion" will feature "new science results from NASA's Mars Curiosity rover".

But NASA managers say the new discoveries show the agency's Mars exploration plans are on the right track. "Organic" carbon can mean biologically derived, but it can also have nonbiological sources. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars' surface.

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