NASA’s major Mars findings: organic molecules and seasonal changes

The discovery leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might.


"Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper".

In a second, potentially more significant finding announced Thursday, scientists reported detection of a seasonal variation in methane levels in the martian atmosphere.

They don't exactly roll off the tongue, but researchers believe that these are fragments of larger molecules that were present on Mars billions of years ago. They're considered necessary for life to form, but there are plenty of places with lots of organic compounds but no life.

A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. So mission scientists sent Curiosity on a four-mile journey to the base of Mount Sharp in hopes of finding more conclusive evidence buried in old lake sediments.

Still, "we're in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life", NASA biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode said in a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

Kirsten Siebach, a Rice University geologist who also was not involved in the studies, is equally excited.

"The big takeaway is that we can find evidence".

Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the wonderful consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said. But scientists revealed tantalizing hints about present-day Mars today, too.

"We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track"'.

Curiosity is a car-side space exploratory vehicle which has been traversing the Red Planet since 2012 to determine if life there ever existed. The methane signal has been observed for almost three Martian years (nearly six Earth years), peaking each summer. Seasonal peaks were detected in late summer in the northern hemisphere and late winter in the southern hemisphere.

"We've considered three possible sources for the organics: geology, meteorites and biology", she said. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference".

Key details about the organics may have been obscured in Curiosity's sample because the rover can only drill two inches into rock. The diameter is slightly smaller than a US dime.

"It's coming from sub-surface reservoirs" and then seeping up to the surface, Webster says.

On Mars, organic molecules could have been produced by some form of either present or past lifeforms. The twin Vikings came up pretty much empty. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.

The team also found several spikes where methane abundance suddenly jumped to be higher than average during the year.

The discovery proves that while Mars is inhospitable today, it previously allowed for "liquid water" to pool, meaning a water lake inside Mars' Gale Crater could have once supported life, NASA said in an announcement on Tuesday.

"You're seeing a factor of three change in the methane in the atmosphere of Mars". That's a harder question to address scientifically, but I think that we need to give the search for life on Mars due diligence.

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