NASA rover data shows Mars had the ingredients needed for life

NASA conference Mars Curiosity Rover

NASA conference Mars Curiosity Rover

The uncovering leaves open the possibility that microorganisms might populate the planet.

Nasa announced that it had something exciting to share with us, adding that there would be a live discussion on Thursday 7 June to explain more about "new science results from Nasa's Mars Curiosity rover".

The organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock in Gale Crater - believed to once contain a shallow lake around the size of Lake Ontario - suggest conditions back then may have been conducive to life.

These results also inform scientists' decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars.

In a separate finding, Curiosity also detected that the small amount of methane present in the Martian atmosphere varies with the seasons.

Although there is not enough information to know whether the carbon molecules were created by biological or non-biological processes, it is possible that they could be a source of methane, Dr Eigenbrode said.

Arriving at Mars in 2012 with a drill and its own onboard labs, Curiosity confirmed the presence of organics in rocks in 2013, but the molecules weren't exactly what scientists expected.

Using Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars instrument - which heats soil and rock samples to examine their contents - astrobiologist Jennifer Eigenbrode and her colleagues were able to identify an array of interesting organic molecules: Ring structures known as aromatics, sulfur compounds and long carbon chains.

More powerful spacecraft are needed to prove whether life ever existed on Mars. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars' surface. Over the intervening years, fluid flowing thought it would have initiated chemical reactions that could have destroyed the organic matter - the material discovered may in fact be fragments from bigger molecules. Some of our planet's earliest organisms may have been methanogens - microbes that eat organic molecules and exhale methane gas.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference. Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lakebed have yielded complex organic macromolecules that look strikingly similar to kerogen, the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth.

The European Space Agency's ExoMars rover will also arrive in 2021 and begin measuring the atmosphere and drilling up to two metres below the surface.

Low levels of methane in Gale crater were shown to repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year. The methane signal has been observed for almost 3 Martian years (nearly 6 Earth years), peaking each summer.

Chris Webster, senior research fellow, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, discussed previous research that had observed methane spikes that seemed irregular.

Mineral veins on Mars seen by Curiosity.

On Earth, we have a process by which underwater volcanoes interact with rock, producing methane that feeds bacteria. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade.

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

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground. Perhaps, some researchers speculated, Mars's remaining organics-and thus any signs of past or present life-were locked away in its subsurface depths.

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