Was there Life on Mars? NASA's Recent Discovery Opens up Possibilities

Mars Curiosity rover selfie

Looking forward, NASA is getting ready to send its Mars 2020 rover to the red planet, and the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars 2020 rover will also head there at the same time. The second evidence comes from Mars' atmosphere and relates to the search for current life on the red planet.

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

By themselves, the new results aren't evidence for ancient life on Mars; non-living processes could have yielded identical molecules.

But Curiosity's data are providing a clearer and more conclusive picture of the conditions and processes on Mars - and what it may have been like on the Red Planet billions of years ago, when conditions were more suitable for life.

Biogeochemist and geologist Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is lead author of one of the two new Science papers, the one related to organic molecules.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter.

"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability".

Q: The Curiosity rover found the first definitive evidence of organic matter on Mars in 2014. At a few dozen parts per million, the detected levels are 100 times higher than previous finds, but scientists still can not say whether they have origins in biology or geology. Before, researchers couldn't understand why the little bit of methane detected in the Martian atmosphere varied.

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The new analysis shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year. "This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity".

A French-built instrument revealed "several organic molecules and volatiles reminiscent of organic-rich sedimentary rock found on Earth, including thiophene, 2- and 3-methyl thiophene, methanethiol, and dimethyl sulfide", said the Science report.

Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over 4 1/2 Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Arriving at Mars in 2012 with a drill and its own onboard labs, Curiosity confirmed the presence of organics in rocks in 2013, but the molecules weren't exactly what scientists expected.

The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake.

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

Scientists have been seeking organic molecules on Mars ever since the 1976 Viking landers. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine. Even more compelling was the fact that these compounds seemed to have broken off even bigger, more complex "macromolecules" - substances found on Earth in coal, black shale and other ancient organic remains.

The data, collected through drilling into the lowest point of the red planet's gale crater, is part of the U.S. space agency's newly widened search for organic molecules that could indicate past life on the surface of Mars. The molecules contain carbon and hydrogen (two of the so-called building blocks of life) and could potentially include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements, leaving open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbor and might still exist there.

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