NASA’s Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars

NASA news conference Mars announcement

The European Space Agency plans to launch its own rover in a few years and NASA is building a powerful follow-on to Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover, that will be equipped with even more powerful instruments to advance the search for life.

A NASA rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of Mars and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane, in findings that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life. Scientists already knew billions of years ago liquid water existed on Mars and the crater had an ancient lake. It has also found evidence in Mars' atmosphere, relating to the search for current life on the red planet. The rover's labs also confirmed seasonal fluctuations of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

NASA's scientists saw "fragments" of organic molecules that were similar to those found in sedimentary rock on Earth.

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. Unfortunately, the new findings do not allow us to say anything about the presence or absence of life on Mars now or in the past.

The compounds might have come from a meteorite, or from geological formations akin to coal and black shale on Earth, or some form of life, Eigenbrode said.

JPL's Christopher Webster, lead author on the study, said it's the first time Martian methane has shown a repeated pattern.

While another indication that Mars might once have supported life, it is not conclusive proof, the U.S. space agency was keen to assert. Some of our planet's earliest organisms may have been methanogens - microbes that eat organic molecules and exhale methane gas.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington.

Despite their unknown origin, the discovery of organics adds further evidence that the Gale Crater could have been an ancient lake or lakes that could have supported microbial life. Nearly exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish.

Webster explains that the seasonal cycle of methane is most likely due to reservoirs of old or new methane - produced either from life or abiotically - being stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates. These salts can break down into oxygen and chlorine when heated at 200˚C and destroy organic molecules. The methane signal has been observed for almost 3 Martian years (nearly 6 Earth years), peaking each summer. The whole exercise discovered molecules like thiophenes, benzene, and toluene indicating the presence of hydrogen and carbon, with the latter existing in concentrations higher than 10 parts per million. The release of methane is an active process on Mars, which could suggest new things about what's unfolding on the Red Planet.

We already knew that Mars' atmosphere contained large unpredictable plumes of methane gas, what we didn't fully understand is where the gas is coming from.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient, we don't know if it's modern - it could be either", Webster said.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said the lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.

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