Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Science | By Joan Schultz

Life on Mars a real possibility as NASA finds 'organic matter'

Life on Mars a real possibility as NASA finds 'organic matter'

Big news from Mars today: NASA's Curiosity rover found ancient traces of organic matter embedded in Martian rocks and detected a "seasonal variation" in atmospheric methane on the Red Planet - an annual pulse of the gas, nearly as if something out there were breathing.

The space agency announced Thursday that its Curiosity rover had uncovered "tough" organic molecules preserved in three-billion-year-old rocks in the planet's Gale Crater, which is believed to have once contained a shallow lake.

In two studies published today (June 7) in the journal Science, researchers from NASA reported the largest amount of organic matter on Mars ever obtained by the Curiosity rover.

Naturally, the usual UFO fans have jumped on this and are suggesting it's probably aliens - or at least some sign of life on the Red Planet.

On top of that, after keeping close tabs on methane levels in the Martian atmosphere, scientists have finally confirmed something weird is definitely going on, and they think they know what's causing it.

But the scientists can not say what the larger molecules were or how they formed.

Nasa is now revealing the latest findings of its Curiosity Rover at a press conference.

Detecting this organic molecule in the atmosphere, combined with the finding of organic compounds in the soil, has strong implications about potential life on Mars in its past. So the Martian traces of organic matter do hint that the basic conditions for life to form were present on Mars at around the same time they existed on Earth. Organic molecules contain carbon, the chemical element central to life. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter". Though those molecules are commonly associated with organic life, NASA conceded that they could have been produced through other means. Maybe there are subsurface Martian bacteria eating that methane, Tanya Harrison, director of research for Arizona State University's Space Technology and Science ("NewSpace") Initiative, told Gizmodo.

The discovery is not a direct evidence of life.

NASA now operates three orbiters and two surface rovers at Mars with a new lander - InSight - on the way.

Michael Mumma, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, considers the measurements important and says they provide ground-truth evidence for his independent (and controversial) detections of Martian methane plumes, using Earth-based telescopes. The 96-mile crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, was most likely formed by meteor impact between 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. Meteorites are constant pummeling Mars, and many of them contain carbon.

"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said. The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide. The levels averaged at 0.41 parts per billion by volume, but ranged from 0.24 to 0.65 depending on the season. Sadly, most scientists dismissed this claim in the decade that followed - finding other explanations for the rock's formation.

It "defines how questions will be asked and pursued in the next stage of Mars exploration", Anbar, who was not involved in the study, told AFP by email. So like the organic molecules, it's not an unambiguous biosignature.

Like this: