NASA finds more stuff suggesting Mars could have hosted life, maybe

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

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. The discovery positions scientists to begin searching for direct evidence of past life on Mars and bolsters the case for returning rock samples from the planet, an effort that begins with the Mars 2020 rover.

Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the wonderful consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.

"Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life", Eigenbrode continued, "organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes".

The unmanned Curiosity rover has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variations of methane on Mars, indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water.

Here on Earth, 95 percent of all methane molecules are the product of living chemistry.

Meanwhile, the scientists hope that the newly discovered methane cycle could lead them to understand where the gas originates and if it is a sign of life. The planet had a thicker atmosphere at the time, and the presence of organic molecules suggests life could have had the necessary pieces to get going.

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. What the authors have found is a systematic variation in methane concentration with season, with the highest concentrations occurring at the Gale Crater towards the end of the northern summer.

"The thing about the chlorinated molecules is that it's not what you'd typically find in natural samples, and so we weren't sure what the significance was at the time", Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, lead author of one of the papers, said in a briefing.

The Gale Crater was once filled with water fed by streams.

Researchers said the findings correspond with findings of traces of methane, a chemical produced by some organic life forms, in the planet's atmosphere.

NASA's Curiosity Rover has explored the surface of Mars for five years, and has recently resumed drilling into rocks on the surface.

But NASA managers say the new discoveries show the agency's Mars exploration plans are on the right track.

Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it's "geologically alive", or active below the surface. And this discovery ushers in a new phase in the search for life on Mars.

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

It will drill even deeper than any prior instrument, up to two yards (meters) deep. "So way under the ground this methane is trapped".

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