What has NASA found on Mars? Get set for major announcement

Katie Ramirez
June 8, 2018

So now they want people to think that finding a few organic molecules on Mars is an advance toward finding evidence of past life? While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist at Goddard, revealed the first news behind all the hype was the discovery of organic molecules from an ancient lake bed.

"The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at the time", wrote Utrecht University astrobiologist Inge Loes ten Kate of the Netherlands.

NASA's Curiosity rover has discovered chemicals the agency considers to be the "building blocks" of basic life forms in soil found on Mars, the aerospace agency announced Thursday.

The discoveries were found using the USA space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

Two rock samples taken by NASA's Curiosity rover were found to contain organic molecules.

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Some of the new science instruments included on the next Mars rover include an X-ray spectrometer, ultraviolet laser, excited rings of carbon atoms, and a ground-penetrating radar that will allow the space agency to look under the surface of Mars up to 30 feet deep depending on terrain. The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide. We might find even more evidence in future missions, too.

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. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about". There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade. However, finding organic material in such abundance suggests that it potentially has biological origins-either from bacteria or other forms of life that existed long ago. "A rigorous approach based on available evidence starts with the scientifically responsible default explanation that Mars is and always has been lifeless", Fries says. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system. Methane is another organic molecule. Methane is ubiquitous in places like the atmospheres of gas-giant planets. This could be a sign that there is a reservoir of methane somewhere under the surface that was generated by chemical reactions involving water or, possibly, by Martian microbes.

NASA will use both these discoveries to inform the design of its upcoming Mars 2020 rover. Even more compelling was the fact that these compounds seemed to have broken off even bigger, more complex "macromolecules" - substances found on Earth in coal, black shale and other ancient organic remains. "But it doesn't tell us that life was there".

That's why one of the scientists they quote says, "I suspect it's geological".

Potential contaminants were analyzed and accounted for, so the results are the most conclusive yet.

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