Newest NASA discoveries could boost search for ancient life on Mars

NASA Mars Mars life Life on Mars Curiosity rover Mars rover Mars Curiosity rover

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA's (European Space Agency's) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface. For her, these molecules are not proof of a past life, the time when Mars was habitable there are some 3.5 billion years ago. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might.

The measurements made by Curiosity in the Gale crater have discovered that the atmospheric levels of methane in the red planet follow a seasonal cycle and have confirmed that it is higher around the equinoxes (spring and autumn) and less at the solstices.

Organic molecules, which can also include elements like oxygen and nitrogen, are often associated with the rise of life on Earth, although they can exist on planets devoid of life as well.

The Curiosity rover which is now trundling around the Gale Crater has found organic material in samples of mudstone, that once upon a time sat at the bottom of an an ancient lake.

Carbon, which is the primary ingredient of coal was also found to be in roughly the same quantities as those observed in Martian meteorites found on Earth, and about 100 times greater in concentration than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars' surface.

Although the media and the scientific community had speculated that NASA would today announce clear evidence of the existence of life on Mars, today's message means only one more step in that direction.

The amount of methane peaked at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere at about 2.7 times the level of the lowest seasonal amount.

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More recently, at the beginning of 2018, the Curiosity was thought to have found evidence of bioturbation, which is what occurs when organisms living in sediments leave an imprint on their structure.

Again, while water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, scientists can not rule out the possibility that the gas was produced by biological processes.

The discovery, published on Thursday by the journal Science, is longtime in the making. Mars scientists have long feared that any organics would be extremely tough to find.

NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen says the agency wants to keep searching for signs of life on Mars.

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" asks Michael Meyer, NASA Program Scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Jen Eigenbrode, the research scientist at Goddard who investigates gases and other organic molecules. "We need to go to places that we think are the most likely places to find it".

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