Mars Curiosity Rover Found Ancient Organic Material and 'Mysterious' Methane, NASA Announces

Posted June 08, 2018

In 2020, NASA plans to launch a rover that will seek out organics and search for chemical signatures of life in ancient Red Planet rocks.

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. "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.

A set of geological results recently delivered courtesy of Curiosity's drill bit provides a deeper understanding of the organic chemistry of the 300-million-year-old mudstone in two separate parts of Gale crater.

It previously found hints of methane and organic compounds, but these findings are the best evidence yet.

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft - and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars - are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet. In the ashes that remained they found thiophenes-relatively small and simple ringlike molecules containing both carbon and sulfur. The methane signal has been observed for almost 3 Martian years (nearly 6 Earth years), peaking each summer.

Each ice station will consist of layers of material and solid blocks of ice that students will drill into using equipment they designed and built. 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. The material was located in the first layers of rock, some four miles away from where the chlorinated molecules had been found.

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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.

On February 26, 2018, it bored a hole about 0.5 inches deep into a target rock, during the trial run of a new, jury-rigged drilling technique.

Now, with years of Curiosity's atmospheric readings at their disposal, Webster and his colleagues were able to analyze 55 Earth months (or roughly three Martian years) of data, finding that there were indeed low levels of background radiation - and that it seemed to experience seasonal surges, almost tripling at its peak near summer's end in the northern hemisphere (and winter's end in the south). One explanation "that no one talks about but is in the back of everyone's mind", as Goddard planetary scientist Mike Mummaput it to Science last winter, is that methanogens beneath the Martian surface were breathing it out.

Curiosity found seasonal changes in atmospheric methane on Mars. Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said in the statement. Instead it's believed that the red planet have had an atmosphere that supported vast oceans of liquid water and within that water may have flourished organic life. That's particularly exciting since water ― so far as we know ― is also an essential ingredient for life.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient, we don't know if it's modern - it could be either", Webster said.

On Mars, organic molecules could have been produced by some form of either present or past lifeforms.