Curiosity Rover Uncovers Long-Sought Organic Materials on Martian Surface

08 June, 2018, 07:21 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

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

A reminder: Organic molecules aren't necessarily produced by organisms; they're just chemical compounds that contain carbon. Organic entails "containing carbon", as this NASA video says, but organic molecules can have biological or non-biological origins.

"People have been wondering about whether there might be life on Mars forever and finally ... they've done all the tests they've modified everything to be able to show that in fact there's organic matter on Mars".

NASA released a statement this week announcing the space agency would be holding a live discussion on new science results from its Mars Curiosity rover.

Almost six years into its survey of a site called Gale Crater on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has delivered what may be the biggest discovery yet in its quest for signs of habitability and life: Organic molecules are abundant in Red Planet rocks, and the simplest organic molecule, methane, seasonally blows through the thin Martian air. Now, scientists working with NASA's Curiosity rover are reporting that this rock still harbours organic molecules that must have been present in the water all those eons ago.

Some of the new science instruments included on the next Mars rover include an X-ray spectrometer, ultraviolet laser, excited rings of carbon atoms, and a ground-penetrating radar that will allow the space agency to look under the surface of Mars up to 30 feet deep depending on terrain. And the high amount of sulfur in the samples is most likely how they've lasted so long, the researchers said. The Viking Project was the first USA mission to safely land spacecraft on the Martian surface, as well as send back images. "Organic matter" in this context doesn't mean anything we'd recognize from our lives on Earth.

The rover also found seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane. So the Martian traces of organic matter do hint that the basic conditions for life to form were present on Mars at around the same time they existed on Earth.

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The case for past habitability on the Red Planet is bolstered by the discovery of preserved organic compounds revealed today, as they are as old as the around 3.5 billion year old sedimentary rocks in which they were found. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.

In the end, a few smidgens of organics remained, including benzene and propane molecules.

The methane is cool, whether it's linked to life or not. That's because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with radiation that can break down organic compounds.

With future missions, scientists may be able to figure out whether or not the organic compounds are indeed biosignatures.

Furthermore, Pontefract says, ExoMars and NASA's Mars 2020 mission will use tools that take a different approach to analyze organics.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode. "But it doesn't tell us that life was there".

It "defines how questions will be asked and pursued in the next stage of Mars exploration", Anbar, who was not involved in the study, told AFP by email.

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