NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity finds building blocks for life on red planet

08 June, 2018, 16:28 | Author: Bertha Harmon
  • NASA news conference Mars announcement

"If there are no organics, we can pretty much forget about there being life or ever having been life on Mars", says Dr. Weintraub.

All of the outside sources I spoke with said it's important to be skeptical about claims of life, extinct or otherwise, on the Red Planet.

The new evidence comes from a pair of rocks.

NASA is to announce new findings from Curiosity in a conference streamed live worldwide on Thursday. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

But the SAM results were hard to interpret - there were a lot of extraneous signals that didn't make any sense.

Dr Jen Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, doused the flames of excitement when she stressed scientists are yet to discover the molecules' origin. And, she says, it gives us an idea where to look. In chemistry, almost all molecules containing both carbon and hydrogen are organic compounds.

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

However, the environment in which the mudstones were deposited - a 3.5-billion-year-old lake bed - would have been altered in other ways as the sediments settled and compressed to become rock.

The space agency has not divulged specific information about what it may have found, leaving many to wonder what intriguing details will be learned about the red planet.

"You're seeing a factor of three change in the methane in the atmosphere of Mars". An Italian-built drill will probe two metres below the surface and hunt for evidence of life, now or in the past. Curiosity reports that methane levels on Mars go up and down in a predictable cycle.

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.

"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. What is needed to find more clues is a mission to Mars with a deep drill. "But it doesn't tell us that life was there".

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Curiosity has been drilling since 2013.

The rover has been seeing seasonal changes in the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere. The material was located in the first layers of rock, some four miles away from where the chlorinated molecules had been found.

JPL's Christopher Webster, lead author on the study, said it's the first time Martian methane has shown a repeated pattern. The methane could even be trapped in water-based crystals beneath the surface.

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. "So it holds it in the winter time and releases it in the summertime as temperatures get warmer".

Dr Webster is also awaiting results from the current ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission, which is orbiting the Red Planet, sniffing methane.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more. Answers to life's biggest questions? Eigenbrode is the lead author on a paper presenting the discovery in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

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