NASA Mars' Discovery News Flash--Finds Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane

NASA conference Mars Curiosity Rover

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

"The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time", Ten Kate wrote.

The new findings, NASA said in a press conference on Thursday, includes evidence of what it described as "tough" organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere. It has also found evidence in Mars' atmosphere, relating to the search for current life on the red planet. NASA also announced it had found signs of "seasonal methane" in the Mars atmosphere. While water-rock chemistry might have produced those variations, NASA said it "cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins".

To identify organic material in the Mars' soil, the Curiosity rover drilled into sedimentary rocks, known as mudstone, from four areas in Gale Crater.

NASA's Curiosity rover has previously found organic matter on Mars.

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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.

That ratio will be very interesting to astrobiologists, because biologically produced methane here on Earth is significantly depleted in carbon-13.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample - fragments of larger organic molecules that don't vaporize easily. The rover mission has achieved that goal, showing that its landing site, the floor of a huge crater called Gale, harbored a potentially habitable lake-and-stream system long ago.

In a report by Space.com, NASA said the "live discussion" will feature "new science results from NASA's Mars Curiosity rover". The rover's internal laboratory heated the powdered rock sample to 900 degrees Fahrenheit to release organic molecules.

By themselves, the new results aren't evidence for ancient life on Mars; non-living processes could have yielded identical molecules.

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Now, with years of Curiosity's atmospheric readings at their disposal, Webster and his colleagues were able to analyze 55 Earth months (or roughly three Martian years) of data, finding that there were indeed low levels of background radiation - and that it seemed to experience seasonal surges, almost tripling at its peak near summer's end in the northern hemisphere (and winter's end in the south).

By examining data spanning almost three Martian years (six Earth years), Webster and his colleagues discerned the first repeating pattern in Martian methane.

In 2012, NASA released evidence from the Curiosity rover that suggested that Gale Crater on Mars "held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources". "So way under the ground this methane is trapped".

The detection of a "repeatable identifiable methane cycle" could be a sign of active biological processes, Webster said.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said the space agency is now on the "right track" in the search for life on Mars. "We know that on Earth microorganisms eat all sorts of organics", said Jen Eigenbrode, a biochemist at the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Centre. The mission's Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at Mars in late 2016, and it's now collecting data that will let scientists map Mars's methane-and maybe even pinpoint its sources.

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