Organic matter found on Mars

NASA news conference Mars announcement

A Nasa rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of the planet and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane, in findings that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life. Hints have been found before, but this is the best evidence yet.

The organic molecules preserved in 3 billion-year-old bedrock suggest conditions at Mars may have once been conducive to life. NASA also announced it had found signs of "seasonal methane" in the Mars atmosphere. "As NASA put it, Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins". NASA calls the Curiosity the "largest and most capable" rover ever to make contact with Mars. Scientists described the particles as "complex carbon chains" but cautioned that the findings could be the result of natural geological phenomena.

The full findings will also appear in the 8 June edition of the journal Science.

Experts have hailed the two new studies as milestones for astrobiology.

NASA's first announcement of the presence of organic compounds on Mars came in 2014 when small levels of chlorinated methane compounds were detected.

"There were a lot of people who thought we weren't going to find all the organic molecules that we did", Eigenbrode said.

The discovery is not a direct evidence of life.

Both the methane gas and soil compounds are organic matter.

The source is still unclear, but it may be stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates, researchers said. This doesn't constitute proof that life existed on Mars, though.

Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years.

The most exciting news is that the changes definitely match the Martian seasons, hitting a peak at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere.

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.

"Not only have we got this wonderful repeatability, but the seasonal cycle changes by a factor of three".

"If we weren't sure, we removed it", Dr. Eigenbrode said. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference".

For years, NASA's Curiosity rover has patiently gathered samples on the surface of Mars. The diameter is slightly smaller than a US dime. "So way under the ground this methane is trapped". The gas creeps from below the surface up to be released into the Mars atmosphere via riverbeds, cracks, and crevices in the surface of the planet.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

"There's a new mission in the planning where they'll be able to drill much deeper than the Curiosity rover can", Freeman says.

NASA also has another rover in the works with its Mars 2020 mission, which plans to drill cores and set them aside for a possible future pickup and return to Earth. SAM's main aim was to search for organic molecules on the martian surface.

What has NASA found on Mars? "We need to go to places that we think are the most likely places to find it".

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