NASA’s Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars

NASA's Rover hasn't just been sniffing the air as it's trundled across the Gale Crater - it has also been drilling just below the surface of the 3.5 billion-year-old lakebed in search of organic molecules. Now, Curiosity has discovered ancient organics that have been preserved in rocks for billions of years.

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

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On 6 August 2012, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite (1) arrived on Mars onboard the Curiosity rover.

Both studies resulting from the mission were published online today in the journal Science.

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers.

"Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes".

The discovery proves that while Mars is inhospitable today, it previously allowed for "liquid water" to pool, meaning a water lake inside Mars' Gale Crater could have once supported life, NASA said in an announcement on Tuesday.

Dr Webster said the difference was much larger than what you would expect if the methane was produced by the breakdown of organic matter from space.

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

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"We were kind of shocked to see that with the seasons, the signal changes by a factor of three, which is a huge change and completely unexpected", says Chris Webster, a rover scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Hints have been found before, but this is the best evidence yet.

It had to stop analysing samples on the Red Planet after a mechanical problem took the rover drill offline in December 2016. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make auto tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode. "What they show is that organics were present early on in Mars".

"As temperatures change from winter to summer, the methane changes greatly because as the surface gets a little bit warmer it releases a lot more methane", he said. With five years of data from a single location, they now have answers.

It was to a great fanfare of publicity that researchers announced they had found evidence for past life on Mars in 1996.

Dr Eigenbrode hopes further details about the nature of the carbon molecules will emerge with future missions, such as the European Space Agencies ExoMars Mission or NASA's Mars 2020 mission.

At this point, we simply don't know whether the origin is biological or geological. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it's a mystery what could be causing it on Mars.

A NASA rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of Mars and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane in findings released on Thursday that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life.

"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said.

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