Organic Matter Found On Mars, Nasa Announces

'I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet'.

In two studies published today (June 7) in the journal Science, researchers from NASA reported the largest amount of organic matter on Mars ever obtained by the Curiosity rover.

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.

Although there is not enough information to know whether the carbon molecules were created by biological or non-biological processes, it is possible that they could be a source of methane, Dr Eigenbrode said.

Curiosity sampled sites by drilling five centimeters below the surface in the Gale crater, which is where the rover landed in 2012.

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.

Utrecht University scientist Inge Loes ten Kate asserted in an accompanying article that the findings proved that the dry lake bed found on Mars was habitable for life billions of years ago.

Methane, the simplest organic molecule, ranges "between 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion, peaking near the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere", said the report, based on three years of data. In a companion article, an outside expert describes the findings as "breakthroughs in astrobiology".

Dr Webster said the difference was much larger than what you would expect if the methane was produced by the breakdown of organic matter from space.

"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).

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover drilled this hole to collect sample material from a rock target called "Buckskin" on July 30, 2015, during the 1060th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference. Once at the surface, the methane sticks to dirt and rocks, with more released into the atmosphere when it's hotter.

The scientists hope to find better preserved organic compounds with Curiosity or other rovers that would allow them to check for chemical signatures of life.

Intriguingly, the organics Dr. Eigenbrode and her colleagues detected looked like they were pieces that came from more complex material.

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said.

As with methane, there could well be non-biological explanations for the presence of carbon-containing molecules on Mars, such as geologic processes or impacts by asteroids, comet, meteors and interplanetary dust. "We need to go to places that we think are the most likely places to find it".

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