Scientists found loads more molecules associated with life on Mars

The Curiosity Mars Rover

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. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. What they claimed they had discovered was a fossilised micro-organism in a Martian meteorite, which they argued was evidence that there has once been life on the Red Planet.

"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 rover has been seeing seasonal changes in the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere. On Earth, 1,800 out of every billion molecules in the atmosphere is methane, and 95 percent of it comes for biological sources: Burning fossil fuels, decomposing debris, burping cows. Much as a detective figures out whodunnit by filling in all the details of a crime first, astrobiologists set about piecing together a picture of the Martian environment to figure out if the planet could even support life, now or in the past. NASA's six-wheeled Curiosity rover drilled into the planet in late 2014 and early 2015. We might find even more evidence in future missions, too.

The new findings are also detailed in two studies published Thursday in the journal Science. In a companion article, an outside expert describes the findings as "breakthroughs in astrobiology".

"People have been wondering about whether there might be life on Mars forever and finally ... they've done all the tests they've modified everything to be able to show that in fact there's organic matter on Mars".

"The detective work they did is worthy of Sherlock Holmes", said Katherine Freeman, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved with the research.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" asked Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

"The big takeaway is that we can find evidence. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter", Eigenbrode continued.

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

"I don't believe there's life on Mars at the present", Freeman says, because Mars is very dry, very cold and lacks much of an atmosphere.

The most exciting news is that the changes definitely match the Martian seasons, hitting a peak at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere. "We were just blown away", he said. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference". The diameter is slightly smaller than a USA dime.

To determine whether the methane is biological, Webster said, scientists can weigh the kinds of carbon atoms it contains (life prefers the lighter versions).

NASA has been searching for confirmation of organic molecules on Mars since the 1970s when it sent the Viking landers to the planet.

The Curiosity rover, launched in 2011 with about $2.5 billion worth of scientific equipment with the intent of exploring and analyzing Mars' Gale Crater. He and his team also can't distinguish whether this methane is the product of geological or biological activity.

"I think part of the Mars community is frustrated with these incremental advances", she says, so there's a push to go look for life directly again.

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