NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars

08 June, 2018, 16:30 | Author: Kristi Owen
  • What has Nasa found on Mars? Alien life? Watch announcement livestream here

NASA released a statement this week announcing the space agency would be holding a live discussion on new science results from its Mars Curiosity rover. The rover has not found evidence of life itself. This includes findings about Mars' atmosphere and organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones in the Gale crater.

But Curiosity's data are providing a clearer and more conclusive picture of the conditions and processes on Mars - and what it may have been like on the Red Planet billions of years ago, when conditions were more suitable for life.

"The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up", said Curiosity's project scientist Ashwin Vasavada said. That's not to say there are no non-biological sources, but on our world they're swamped by cow farts and belching bacteria. Also pleasing is that the presence of chlorine and sulphur, which both preserve organics, suggests the presence of many more deposits from which to learn more about Mars' past and possible ecosystems.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", NASA science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen told USA Today.

The two studies appear in the journal Science.

Experts have hailed the two new studies as milestones for astrobiology.

The search for organic molecules actually began on Mars in 1976 via Viking 1 and II, so the finding of them by Curiosity is an achievement a long time coming.

Kirsten Siebach, a Rice University geologist who also was not involved in the studies, is equally excited.

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

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.

That means they do not have compelling evidence for a biological origin of the carbon, but the possibility is not ruled out, either.

The search for life on Mars over the past half century has been an exercise in lowering the bar combined with ever more sophisticated ways of seeking clues.

A seasonal change in methane levels is exciting, he said, because 95 percent of the methane observed on Earth is the result of biology.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", said lead author of the second paper Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The magnitude of these seasonal peaks - by a factor of three - was far more than scientists expected. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference".

The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis. The diameter is slightly smaller than a USA dime. The methane could even be trapped in water-based crystals beneath the surface. They're considered necessary for life to form, but there are plenty of places with lots of organic compounds but no life.

NASA's Curiosity rover has wandered around Mars' Gale crater, a presumed ancient lakebed, since 2012. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.

Jen Eigenbrode, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said these findings "bode well" in the space agency's attempts to unlock the Red Planet's past and formation.

If microbial life was present on Mars, it would not have gone hungry.


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