NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, pictured on Mars' Vera Rubin Ridge in a self-portrait obtained on February 4, 2018, landed on the planet in 2012.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA science director at agency headquarters, said in a statement.

"Everything that was needed to support life was there".

All of which will be taken into account when several more Mars lander projects head for the Red Planet in the next two years.

Some geologists devote their careers to seeking organic inclusions in Earth rocks, hoping to find ancient fossils of terrestrial life.

Are there signs of life on Mars? Webster said. "If they could tell us there's a region of Mars where the methane seems to be coming from, that would be huge".

Regardless, the detection is a technical achievement, said Williford, because it demonstrates that organic molecules can persist near Mars's surface for billions of years. However, "we're in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life", said Jennifer Eigenbrode, a NASA biogeochemist and lead author of a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

"We have greatly expanded our search for organic compounds, which is fundamental in the search for life", said Paul Mahaffy, study author and director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The findings were also remarkable, in that it showed that organic material can be preserved for billions of years on the harsh Martian surface.

"Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimetres of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper".

Q: The Curiosity rover found the first definitive evidence of organic matter on Mars in 2014. This is different from previous measurements of methane on Mars, which could not be repeated. Rising levels in the summer months, when Mars is warmer, could be an indication of on-going biology or it could simply be the result of purely geological processes.

The other paper in Science reported on new details in the search for the source of methane on Mars, which has wide spikes and dips according to the seasons. "This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity". Right now the first of its two spacecraft, the Trace Gas Orbiter, is circling high above the Martian surface and sniffing the atmosphere for methane and other interesting gases with a Belgian-led instrument.

There is a seasonal variation to the methane that repeats, which means the methane is being released from the Martian surface or from reservoirs beneath the surface. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech. These salts can break down into oxygen and chlorine when heated at 200˚C and destroy organic molecules.

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. NASA says that these molecules may have survived because they bonded with sulfur atoms, which made the long, complex molecules much tougher in the same way as introducing sulfur into the rubber used in tires by vulcanization makes the tires durable.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more.

The Martian climate is too dry and the atmosphere is too thin, leaving the surface exposed to significant amounts of radiation, for Mars to host life today.

Vanessa Coleman

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