Mars Rover Curiosity Finds More Clues to the Potential for Life

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The space agency already has its eyes on the future as the Mars 2020 Rover has been called a "souped-up science machine" that will expand upon Curiosity's findings. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might. This new discovery of old organics strengthens that possibility and offers new insights into how things preserve in Mars rock, Grinspoon says.

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. On Mars, that's been a maddening challenge: While scientists have detected bursts of methane on the planet, they've appeared at random - and thus, it's been hard to figure out what the source is. That's because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with radiation that can break down organic compounds.

"We have no proof that the methane is formed biologically, but we can not rule it out, even with this new data set", Webster said.

'With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life, ' said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa headquarters.

The best evidence that life once existed on Mars has been revealed in 3-billion-year old organic matter in rocks and cyclical emissions of methane from the planet's surface, NASA scientists disclosed on Thursday in a press conference explaining recent discoveries by the Curiosity rover. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars' surface. Spikes of methane (CH4) were first noticed in the Red Planet's atmosphere several years ago, drawing intense debate over the hydrocarbon's possible source.

"It could be from rock processes", processes that have been going on during the billions of years since Mars formed. Because that's what happens when you go digging around Mars. Methane is quickly broken down by radiation, so it must be replenished by some source on the planet. Using SAM, Webster and his colleagues have found a persistent background level of methane in the atmosphere above Gale Crater over the last five years of about 0.4 part per billion-a scarcely detectable trace, to be sure, but enough to pique astrobiologists' interest.

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"Today, we're announcing the discovery of a repeatable, identifiable, seasonal pattern in the methane measurements", said Chris Webster, a senior research fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine.

The term "organic" means something different to a chemist than it does to a produce manager at a grocery store.

These might explain the increase in molecules, but they do still leave its rapid vanishing act wanting of an explanation. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it's "geologically alive", or active below the surface.

A thick strata of olivine might be a potential contributor, leaking a steady flow of methane as it reacts with water and carbon dioxide in a process called serpentinisation.

The rover has been seeing seasonal changes in the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

By examining data spanning almost three Martian years (six Earth years), Webster and his colleagues discerned the first repeating pattern in Martian methane.

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

Webster theorizes the methane created either now or long ago is seeping from deep underground reservoirs up through cracks and fissures in the crust. "It's on the table with all the other ones", Dr. Eigenbrode said.

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time", Kate said.

Intriguingly, the organics Dr. Eigenbrode and her colleagues detected looked like they were pieces that came from more complex material.

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