Mars Has Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane

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NASA's Curiosity rover has uncovered organic material in an ancient lakebed and confirmed a seasonal cycle of methane - offering the strongest evidence yet of potential life, past or even present, on the Red Planet.

Curiosity's project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: "The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up".

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA's (European Space Agency's) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

The Mars 2020 rover will scan the Red Planet for signs of ancient life by studying terrain that once consisted of flowing rivers and lakes more than 3.5 billion years ago.

Curiosity has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variation of methane on Mars - indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water. That's not to say there are no non-biological sources, but on our world they're swamped by cow farts and belching bacteria.

A set of geological results recently delivered courtesy of Curiosity's drill bit provides a deeper understanding of the organic chemistry of the 300-million-year-old mudstone in two separate parts of Gale crater.

The scientists hope to find better preserved organic compounds with Curiosity or other rovers that would allow them to check for chemical signatures of life. This is the matter-chemically characterized as combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements routinely found in biology like sulphur and oxygen-often associated with life.

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.

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The search for life outside Earth focuses on the building blocks of life as we know it, which includes organic compounds and molecules - although these can exist without life.

In addition, NASA recorded methane spikes on the planet Mars, in a form that is repeating rather than random. The Martian surface is bombarded with radiation that can degrade organic compounds, explains Eigenbrode.

The Gale Crater was probably habitable 3.5 billion years ago, based on what Curiosity has shown us. 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.

"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.

I asked everyone I spoke with if they thought there was life on Mars, and the consensus was maybe, maybe not. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about".

"It could be from rock processes", processes that have been going on during the billions of years since Mars formed. Mars2020 will shed light on the organic molecules-and prepare a sample that some future mission could bring back to Earth. This is different from previous measurements of methane on Mars, which could not be repeated.

"I'm equally as fascinated by the idea that life never got started on Mars in the first place".

In the end, a few smidgens of organics remained, including benzene and propane molecules.

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