NASA robot detects complex organic matter on Mars in 'significant breakthrough'

Friday, 08 Jun, 2018

The Curiosity rover has not been able to find the source of the organic molecules in its findings, according to the report.

The rover also found seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane. The results were published Thursday in the journal Science.

I asked everyone I spoke with if they thought there was life on Mars, and the consensus was maybe, maybe not.

The methane is cool, whether it's linked to life or not.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life.

Methane is considered the simplest organic molecule.

That stuff is thought to be spread throughout the solar system, she said. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of global space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet. "It slowed down the whole Mars program, unfortunately".

"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space", said Jen Eigenbrode, a study author and research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

On Mars, organic molecules could have been produced by some form of either present or past lifeforms. The rover has returned a lot of fascinating science, but its latest discovery offers the best evidence yet for life on Mars. To combat the contamination, the Curiosity team focused on finding more chlorine-containing organics, and limited subsequent SAM runs to temperatures between 200 and 400 degrees C. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

Inorganic carbon is carbon that is found in compounds that are completely unlike biological molecules.

Researchers previously determined that the Gale Crater likely contained a water lake billions of years ago that had the basic, vital ingredients for life.

That raises the obvious question: Where did the carbon come from? They are fairly certain that it comes from melting water-based crystals, called clathrates, buried just below the planet's surface.

"I'm equally as fascinated by the idea that life never got started on Mars in the first place".

In the meantime Curiosity has undertaken what Webster calls "the most important measurements of Mars methane made to date". Much as a detective figures out whodunnit by filling in all the details of a crime first, astrobiologists set about piecing together a picture of the Martian environment to figure out if the planet could even support life, now or in the past. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. "If it doesn't repeat, you can't find out what it is". "And the last one is geological processes, meaning the rock-forming processes themselves".

Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the awesome consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.

Scientists hope to further the search for signs of life on Mars with the European and Russian rover, ExoMars, scheduled to land in 2021.

"If there are no organics, we can pretty much forget about there being life or ever having been life on Mars", says Dr. Weintraub. "Testing a hypothesis to the contrary requires a very strong body of evidence". It arrived at Mars in 2016 and is now mapping concentrations of methane and other gases from on high.

For his part Webster says he has no preference among the different explanations, and believes it will take a long time before any final conclusions can be drawn.

NASA actually isn't looking for life on Mars right now.