NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity finds building blocks for life on red planet

NASA news conference Mars announcement

NASA news conference Mars announcement

The second evidence comes from Mars' atmosphere and relates to the search for current life on the red planet.

"When you work with something as insane as a rover on Mars, with the most complex instrument ever sent to space, it seems like we're doing what may have been perceived earlier as impossible", says lead author Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biogeochemist at NASA Goddard.

A NASA robot has detected more building blocks for life on Mars - the most complex organic matter yet - from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists said Thursday. Scientists already knew billions of years ago liquid water existed on Mars and the crater had an ancient lake.

The Curiosity rover has lasted three times as long as it was meant to and is still going, which helped with the study of seasonal methane cycles.

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. "While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet's surface and subsurface", the space agency said.

But the discovery of organic material does not instantly prove Mars was once abundant with life. They can come from living and nonliving sources, but because many are necessary for and produced by life on Earth, they're considered possible biosignatures - signs of the presence of life.

"The thing about the chlorinated molecules is that it's not what you'd typically find in natural samples, and so we weren't sure what the significance was at the time", Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, lead author of one of the papers, said in a briefing. They thought mudstone rocks, formed from silt accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake, might hold some clues and analyzed the powdered samples from Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite.

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

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

The source is still unclear, but it may be stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates, researchers said.

But life-hunting Mars missions are coming, and soon.

By examining data spanning almost three Martian years (six Earth years), Webster and his colleagues discerned the first repeating pattern in Martian methane. Both the atmospheric methane and the preserved carbon have inspired confidence that NASA's forthcoming Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover could uncover additional evidence for ancient life on the Red Planet. "So way under the ground this methane is trapped".

Additional data from the robotic probe confirms the detection of "seasonal patterns" in methane levels, NASA geophysicist Ashwin Vasvada said in the live-streamed announcement. In fact, thiophenes are pretty simple molecules that are just a 5-sided carbon ring, but with a sulfur molecule replacing a carbon atom. The mission's Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at Mars in late 2016, and it's now collecting data that will let scientists map Mars's methane-and maybe even pinpoint its sources.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, praised the findings and said he is positive NASA's search for alien life is headed in the right direction.

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