Life on Mars? Rover’s Latest Discovery Puts It ‘On the Table’

Mars Curiosity rover selfie

The discoveries were found using the USA space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

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".

NASA says, 'The media and public are invited to ask questions during a live discussion at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, June 7, on new science results from NASA's Mars Curiosity rover'.

However, the environment in which the mudstones were deposited - a 3.5-billion-year-old lake bed - would have been altered in other ways as the sediments settled and compressed to become rock. Curiosity has detected large organic molecules inside ancient Martian rocks, as well as methane cycles now active on the planet.

The vast majority of methane on Earth, at least, has a biological origin, so its presence on Mars is significant to the possibility of actually discovering life on Mars.

The rock fragments were heated to more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rover's instruments looked at the molecules that wafted away at the high temperatures.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.

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.

Organic molecules are considered one of the basic building blocks of life.

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The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

Scientists say three different types of organic molecules were found by the rover after it dug just two inches (5cm) in the planet's surface.

The organic-rich sample came from the bottom of what used to be a massive lake inside Gale Crater billions of years ago.

One thing is for sure, though - whatever we can figure out about the chemistry of Mars, it's nearly certainly going to add precious details to our understanding of life in the cosmos.

Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, explained that the objective of the mission was to explore the possibility of sustaining life on Mars.

NASA has been searching for confirmation of organic molecules on Mars since the 1970s when it sent the Viking landers to the planet. Mars2020 will shed light on the organic molecules-and prepare a sample that some future mission could bring back to Earth. "Organic matter" in this context doesn't mean anything we'd recognize from our lives on Earth. They're considered necessary for life to form, but there are plenty of places with lots of organic compounds but no life. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.

"The fantastic consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars".

Here on Earth, 95 percent of all methane molecules are the product of living chemistry. If scientists keep drilling deeper and more widely, as they plan to do with the European and Russian space agencies' ExoMars rover and NASA's Mars 2020 mission, who knows what they might find?

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