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

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

Over almost six years roaming the surface of Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has detected organic molecules that offer a taste of what an ancient life-friendly Red Planet might have looked like.

NASA's Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet.

NASA's Curiosity rover has found evidence of complex organic matter preserved in the topmost layers of the Martian surface, scientists report today in the journal Science.

The Mars 2020 rover will scan the Red Planet for signs of ancient life by studying terrain that once consisted of flowing rivers and lakes more than 3.5 billion years ago.

Earlier today, NASA reported that its Mars Curiosity rover made some curious new discoveries on the Red Planet.

Thanks to the extended time period that Curiosity has spent on Mars it has actually been able to detect seasonal variations in how the methane is produced, and where it settles throughout the year. Still, neither find constitutes evidence of life, as Curiosity team members were careful to stress yesterday; organics and methane can be produced by geological processes, and the origin of the stuff Curiosity observed remains unknown.

Detecting this organic molecule in the atmosphere, combined with the finding of organic compounds in the soil, has strong implications about potential life on Mars in its past. However, whether such life ever existed on Mars remains the big unknown.

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Inorganic carbon is carbon that is found in compounds that are completely unlike biological molecules. The material was located in the first layers of rock, some four miles away from where the chlorinated molecules had been found.

The source is still unclear, but it may be stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates, researchers said. The rover spotted the chemical signature in samples take from sedimentary rocks the formed some 3 billion years ago.

The nuclear-battery-powered Curiosity rover, a $2.5 billion mobile chemistry lab, launched in 2011.

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).

NASA revealed the list of scientists who will be discussing the recent discoveries on Mars.

Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lakebed have yielded complex organic molecules that look strikingly similar to the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth. The methane, he and his colleagues speculate, could come from aquifers melting during the Martian summer, releasing water that flows over rocks deep underground to produce fresh gas. Gale Crater's rim is visible on the horizon. "It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there", explained Eigenbrode.

In the meantime Curiosity has undertaken what Webster calls "the most important measurements of Mars methane made to date". After the first Mariner missions of the 1960s, even these were ruled out and the hope was that when the Viking landers touched down in 1976, they'd be able to find signs of biological processes.

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