Building Blocks of Life Found on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

Almost six years into its survey of a site called Gale Crater on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has delivered what may be the biggest discovery yet in its quest for signs of habitability and life: Organic molecules are abundant in Red Planet rocks, and the simplest organic molecule, methane, seasonally blows through the thin Martian air.

Since NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, it has sifted samples of soil and ground-up rock for signs of organic molecules-the complex carbon chains that on Earth form the building blocks of life.

Curiosity's latest data reveal that the watery lake that once filled Mars's Gale Crater contained complex organic molecules about 3.5 billion years ago. If scientists keep drilling deeper and more widely, as they plan to do with the European and Russian space agencies' ExoMars rover and NASA's Mars 2020 mission, who knows what they might find? Yet over the course of 55 Earth months (three Martian years), Webster and his team were able to use SAM to detect tiny, regular patterns in which methane-natural gas-increased from 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion at the end of northern Mars' summer.

"We found organic molecules in rocks from an ancient lakebed", said Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist and astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

In two studies published today (June 7) in the journal Science, researchers from NASA reported the largest amount of organic matter on Mars ever obtained by the Curiosity rover. The organic compounds aren't even the first molecules of their kind found on Mars, though they are the oldest. However, whether such life ever existed on Mars remains the big unknown.

There's also excitement because Curiosity found this stuff without having to look very hard: the organics turned up in some mud that looked likely.

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A seasonal change in methane levels is exciting, he said, because 95 percent of the methane observed on Earth is the result of biology.

A reminder: Organic molecules aren't necessarily produced by organisms; they're just chemical compounds that contain carbon.

The Mars 2020 rover won't represent the first jump in camera improvement as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers had 10 each, and the Curiosity rover had 17.

"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability". This could be a sign that there is a reservoir of methane somewhere under the surface that was generated by chemical reactions involving water or, possibly, by Martian microbes. Also pleasing is that the presence of chlorine and sulphur, which both preserve organics, suggests the presence of many more deposits from which to learn more about Mars' past and possible ecosystems. "Everything that was needed to support life was there". Sharp, the 3-mile-high mound in the middle of Gale Crater whose layers of sediments serve as individual chapters in the geological history of Mars. "That gives me great hope because we can perhaps get past these surface environments that are so harsh and maybe [go] a little deeper and find better-preserved materials".

"We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track"'. We don't know if that methane is ancient, we don't know if it's modern.

They heated the sample to more than 500 degrees Celsius and measured tiny organic matter releasing from it.

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