NASA’s Curiosity rover finds organic material and more on Mars

NASA    
     MARS ROVER The vehicle has spent 2,000 days on the Red Planet

NASA MARS ROVER The vehicle has spent 2,000 days on the Red Planet

NASA's Curiosity rover has discovered chemicals the agency considers to be the "building blocks" of basic life forms in soil found on Mars, the aerospace agency announced Thursday. The new organic molecule findings are 100 times greater than those previously found on Mars' surface, according to the agency. Alas, still no aliens: the rover found some rocks-some billion-year-old rocks-containing "ancient organic material".

The Mars 2020 rover will scan the Red Planet for signs of ancient life by studying terrain that once consisted of flowing rivers and lakes more than 3.5 billion years ago.

Chris Webster, senior research fellow, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, discussed previous research that had observed methane spikes that seemed irregular. The rover has also detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. "Short of taking a picture of a fossil in a rock on Mars, [finding life there] is extremely hard to do scientifically", says Chris Webster, a chemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the methane study. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it's a mystery what could be causing it on Mars. NASA's six-wheeled Curiosity rover drilled into the planet in late 2014 and early 2015.

But the deposits were much smaller than they had anticipated. Eigenbrode is the lead author on a paper presenting the discovery in the June 8 edition of the journal Science. In a companion article, an outside expert describes the findings as "breakthroughs in astrobiology".

Kirsten Siebach, a Rice University geologist who also was not involved in the studies, is equally excited. And this discovery ushers in a new phase in the search for life on Mars.

"The big takeaway is that we can find evidence. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter", said Eigenbrode. "And we see releases of gas today that could be related to life in the subsurface or at the very least are probably related to warm water or environments where Earth life would be happy living".

The methane is cool, whether it's linked to life or not. "We now have really good reasons to look a whole lot harder", he says. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference". So mission scientists sent Curiosity on a four-mile journey to the base of Mount Sharp in hopes of finding more conclusive evidence buried in old lake sediments. The diameter is slightly smaller than a USA dime.

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Even though the TGO mission can't get as close to the source as the Curiosity Rover, Dr Webster said it could locate potential areas where methane is concentrated or coming from. 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.

Scientists have been seeking organic molecules on Mars ever since the 1976 Viking landers.

These molecules appeared to come from a much larger molecule, and contained high levels of sulfur.

Nasa is now revealing the latest findings of its Curiosity Rover at a press conference. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.

Whether anywhere other than Earth has harboured life, perhaps even in microbial form, is one of the paramount questions in science.

Over the years, scientists have amassed a number of clues that can help answer the question of Mars' habitability, including evidence of liquid water.

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