Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Research | By Clarence Powell

NASA rover finds strongest evidence yet for life on Mars

NASA rover finds strongest evidence yet for life on Mars

Nasa's Curiosity rover has discovered organic matter on Mars, the agency has announced in a press conference.

Methane in the martian atmosphere has been detected before, but only in isolated patches or plumes of higher concentrations, not in any repeatable pattern.

A NASA robot has found more building blocks for life on Mars, the most complex organic matter yet from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the red planet, the USA space agency said on Thursday. There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff.

"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.

"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. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life, NASA says. The 2020 rover will include an advanced spectrometer to scan for organic molecules.

"The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars", said Kate. She pointed out that the surface of Mars is regularly exposed to space radiation, and that radiation and chemicals typically break down organic matter. And they believe the fragments could have been parts of larger molecules present a long, long time ago on Mars.

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The samples were heated to 500C in Curiosity's oven to release any organic molecules, the kind that don't vaporise easily. The methane, he and his colleagues speculate, could come from aquifers melting during the Martian summer, releasing water that flows over rocks deep underground to produce fresh gas.

NASA says the Mars 2020 rover is made up of about 85 percent of heritage hardware from the Curiosity. The timing of the pulses provides an important clue. We don't know if that methane is ancient, we don't know if it's modern. Methane is ubiquitous in places like the atmospheres of gas-giant planets.

The Gale Crater was probably habitable 3.5 billion years ago, based on what Curiosity has shown us. For present life, some scientists say we should look below the surface, in soils or in caves, where there might be liquid water still flowing and organic compounds around.

NASA's InSight Lander, launched on May 5, will land on Mars on November 26.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft effectively ruled out cosmic origins following its analysis of the dust left after a close encounter with the comet Siding Spring in 2014. I want to know their story. Nearly exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP.

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