NASA Reveals Organic Molecules and Seasonal Methane Spikes Found on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

The discovery leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might.

For the first time, scientists say they have clear evidence that the chemical building blocks of life exist on Mars.

As promised, NASA has announced new milestone Mars discoveries, namely the presence of organic molecules and seasonal changes in atmospheric methane.

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. Organic matter can be one of several things: a record detailing ancient life, a food source for life or something that exists in the place of life. In another paper published simultaneously in the journal Science, they describe background levels of methane, also an organic, in Mars's atmosphere that varies seasonally. So like the organic molecules, it's not an unambiguous biosignature. Methane is also quickly broken down by ultraviolet radiation, so any of the gas discovered on Mars was probably released recently.

The samples were heated to 500C in Curiosity's oven to release any organic molecules, the kind that don't vaporise easily.

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NASA has good evidence that Gale Crater where Curiosity is rolling around used to be a lake. The methane concentrations peak near the end of the northern hemisphere's summer, then dwindle in the winter.

"We can find organic matter preserved in mudstones that are more than 3 billion years old".

JPL's Christopher Webster, lead author on the study, said it's the first time Martian methane has shown a repeated pattern.

NASA says the Mars 2020 rover is made up of about 85 percent of heritage hardware from the Curiosity.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.

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NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover snaps a self-portrait at a site called Vera Rubin Ridge on the Martian surface in February 2018 in this image obtained on June 7, 2018. Certainly, there are geological processes that could make methane levels change over the Martian year, she said.

"Because we see these coming off of the sample at high temperatures, what they're really telling us is that they're part of something larger, a macromolecule", she said. 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.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft effectively ruled out cosmic origins following its analysis of the dust left after a close encounter with the comet Siding Spring in 2014. They therefore suggest that methane could be trapped at depth, gradually seeping to the surface. Curiosity can only drill a few centimeters into Martian rocks, and it lacks the advanced tools necessary to search for more complex markers of life.

Webster theorizes the methane created either now or long ago is seeping from deep underground reservoirs up through cracks and fissures in the crust. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of worldwide space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet.

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