Organic matter found on Mars, opening new chapter in search for life

08 June, 2018, 16:26 | Author: Chad Warren
  • Getty    
     IMMINENT NASA is to reveal findings from its Mars mission

Over almost six years roaming the surface of Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has detected organic molecules that offer a taste of what an ancient life-friendly Red Planet might have looked like.

Organic matter has been found on Mars in soil samples taken from 3 billion-year-old mudstone in the Gale crater by the Curiosity rover, NASA announced Thursday.

NASA's Curiosity rover has found evidence of complex organic matter preserved in the topmost layers of the Martian surface, scientists report today in the journal Science. 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. But National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists have emphasised there could be non-biological explanations for both discoveries made by the Curiosity rover at a site called Gale crater, leaving the issue of Martian life a tantalising but unanswered question.

It was to a great fanfare of publicity that researchers announced they had found evidence for past life on Mars in 1996.

"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. 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.

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. Though those molecules are commonly associated with organic life, NASA conceded that they could have been produced through other means.

"I think part of the Mars community is frustrated with these incremental advances", she says, so there's a push to go look for life directly again. The molecules could be the remnants of past organisms, the result of chemical reactions with rocks or simply space debris.

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"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space", said Jen Eigenbrode, a study author and research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

Curiosity rover on Mars. Much as a detective figures out whodunnit by filling in all the details of a crime first, astrobiologists set about piecing together a picture of the Martian environment to figure out if the planet could even support life, now or in the past. Sure, if a Martian strolled by a rover's cameras scientists would see it, but the rover is not equipped to make an unambiguous detection of life.

Curiosity found seasonal changes in atmospheric methane on Mars. Such incremental progress is the whole point of NASA's Mars exploration program, Freissinet notes.

But Webster and others stress that the studies themselves aren't evidence for life on Mars: "The observations we see do not rule out the possibility of biological activity, [but] it's not a smoking gun for it".

Webster theorizes the methane created either now or long ago is seeping from deep underground reservoirs up through cracks and fissures in the crust. That's particularly exciting since water ― so far as we know ― is also an essential ingredient for life.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference.

"We can not rule out its creation from biological activity ..."

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