New Mars discoveries in ancient lakebed advance case for possible life

Katie Ramirez
June 8, 2018

NASA earlier this week announced that the Curiosity rover had started analysing drilled samples on Mars in one of its onboard labs for the first time in more than a year. Alas, still no aliens: the rover found some rocks-some billion-year-old rocks-containing "ancient organic material".

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

The discovery leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might.

.

In 2013, it confirmed organic compounds in rocks in a deep part of the crater called Yellowknife Bay, said Jennifer Eigenbrode, who led the organic molecule study published in Science.

While we know that Mars was habitable in the past, the case demonstrates just how hard it will be to ever prove the existence of past life on its surface.

These chemicals might not mean a great deal to most of us, but to areologists (that's Martian geologists) it's an indication that the organic chemistry in Martian mudstone is extremely similar to our own. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter", Eigenbrode continued. This latest discovery adds evidence that Mars may have been capable of supporting life in its ancient past, though there's still no evidence that life had actually existed on the Red Planet.

Corpus Christi man bitten by severed rattlesnake head
But his condition deteriorated so badly that an ambulance had to meet him en route, and he was later life-flighted to a hospital. She said the first 24 hours were the worst. "He had to rip the snake's head off", Jennifer said".

Chris Webster, senior research fellow, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, discussed previous research that had observed methane spikes that seemed irregular.

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. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make auto tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode. With five years of data from a single location, they now have answers.

If Viking was phase one of our search for life on Mars, and the methodical quest for clues of habitability that followed was phase two, says Grinspoon, "this is the successful culmination of phase two". The Viking Project was the first U.S. mission to safely land spacecraft on the Martian surface, as well as send back images. Before, researchers couldn't understand why the little bit of methane detected in the Martian atmosphere varied. They are fairly certain that it comes from melting water-based crystals, called clathrates, buried just below the planet's surface.

At this point, we simply don't know whether the origin is biological or geological.

Even though the TGO mission can't get as close to the source as the Curiosity Rover, Dr Webster said it could locate potential areas where methane is concentrated or coming from. This new discovery builds on the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved. The host of the session, assistant director of science for communications in NASA's Planetary Science Division Michelle Thaller, began by clearing up any rumors that the agency would announce that they had found alien life.

NASA also has another rover in the works with its Mars 2020 mission, which plans to drill cores and set them aside for a possible future pickup and return to Earth.

Other reports by

Discuss This Article

FOLLOW OUR NEWSPAPER