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Mars Curiosity Rover Found Ancient Organic Material and 'Mysterious' Methane, NASA Announces

Mars Curiosity Rover Found Ancient Organic Material and 'Mysterious' Methane, NASA Announces

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.

New Mars discoveries are advancing the case for possible life on the red planet, past or even present.

NASA's Curiosity rover has found new science "results" on Mars and the agency will disclose the findings at a press conference that starts at 11.30 pm India time on 7 June.

While not direct evidence of life, the compounds drilled from Mars' Gale Crater are the most diverse array ever taken from the surface of the planet since the robotic vehicle landed in 2012, experts say. NASA also announced it had found signs of "seasonal methane" in the Mars atmosphere.

Although there is not enough information to know whether the carbon molecules were created by biological or non-biological processes, it is possible that they could be a source of methane, Dr Eigenbrode said. The latter element, it is thought, came from a sulfur-rich mineral called jarosite that previous Curiosity investigations had revealed in 3.5-billion-year-old deposits in Gale Crater-laid down at a time when the crater was warm, wet and apparently habitable.

NASA's Curiosity rover has again found evidence that Mars was potentially capable of hosting life.

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft - and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars - are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet.

Regardless, the detection is a technical achievement, said Williford, because it demonstrates that organic molecules can persist near Mars's surface for billions of years. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars' surface. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine.

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These chemicals might not mean a great deal to most of us, but to areologists (that's Martian geologists) it's an indication that the organic chemistry in Martian mudstone is extremely similar to our own. The methane concentrations peak near the end of the northern hemisphere's summer, then dwindle in the winter.

In the first study, a team led by Christopher Webster, a chemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, describes how Mars' atmosphere appears to have low levels of fluctuating methane. The methane signal has been observed for almost 3 Martian years (nearly 6 Earth years), peaking each summer.

Methane gas can be a byproduct of life on Earth, but there are geological processes that can produce it, too.

"I don't believe there's life on Mars at the present", Freeman says, because Mars is very dry, very cold and lacks much of an atmosphere.

Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and it could have supported a climate that sustained lakes on Mars.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, though they can also be produced by chemical reactions unrelated to life. Curiosity can only drill a few centimeters into Martian rocks, and it lacks the advanced tools necessary to search for more complex markers of life. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it's "geologically alive", or active below the surface. They therefore suggest that methane could be trapped at depth, gradually seeping to the surface.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" asked Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.


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