NASA’s major Mars findings: organic molecules and seasonal changes

NASA news conference Mars announcement

The discoveries were found using the USA space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars has found complex organic matter on the surface of the red planet.

These organic compounds, a requirement for life as it's known on Earth, were found in 3-billion-year-old rocks deposited on the floor of Gale Crater. If scientists keep drilling deeper and more widely, as they plan to do with the European and Russian space agencies' ExoMars rover and NASA's Mars 2020 mission, who knows what they might find?

As for the "mysterious methane", NASA scientists say that the gas goes through seasonal variations in the atmosphere over the course of three Mars years - or every six Earth years.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins.

Curiosity drilled down and found the evidence in the top five centimetres of rock, a surprise given that the surface of Mars is hammered by radiation from space, and over time the light would break down organic matter.

The traces of methane on Mars are tantalizing to biologists eager for evidence of life.

But the discovery of organic material does not instantly prove Mars was once abundant with life.

"It's not that they haven't found a bit of organic matter before or even the methane in the atmosphere.it's that they've now definitively shown this to be the case".

"They could be changed from something like we've observed at the base of the mountain into methane that eventually makes its way back in to the atmosphere", she said.

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

There is a silver lining: as we mention above and NASA was quick to point out, "while commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life", which is encouraging.

"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.

That Mars possesses organic molecules is not surprising. Then the scientists sifted through the results to figure out what might be genuine Martian organics.

Maybe even billions of years - the Gale crater, named after Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, is up to 3.8 billion years old, and may have once held a lake.

Data from the plucky rover Curiosity and the Trace Gas Orbiter high above the planet have spotted it in puffs, suggesting a dynamic process is churning it out parts per billion. This new discovery builds on the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved. That's a harder question to address scientifically, but I think that we need to give the search for life on Mars due diligence.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, praised the findings and said he is positive NASA's search for alien life is headed in the right direction. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about".

Webster and his colleagues suspect that the methane comes from deep underground, and temperature swings on Mars's surface throttle its flow upward.

These may be "organic" in that they include carbon, but we're not aware of these being precursors to anything biological.

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