Explainer: Mars rover discovers building blocks of life on the red planet

Katie Ramirez
June 10, 2018

NASA's Curiosity rover has found complex organic molecules in three-billion-year-old rocks on Mars - as well as signs that the methane in the atmosphere varies according to seasons. The findings hold a huge significance as it might mean that Gale Crater had habitable conditions similar to the Earth, where life was evolving around that time.

Humayan is a professor of geochemistry at Florida State Univeristy and on staff at the FSU-headquartered National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

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. For what was said detected molecule is unknown. Eigenbrode said that recent organic detection tells the prehistoric environment on Mars that could have supported life.

Analysis by Curiosity indicates that billions of years ago, a lake inside Gale crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks, energy sources, and liquid water. "That pessimistic possibility that has lurked as a fear at the back of everyone's minds may just have been changed forever".

"This is a very exciting discovery, but we cannot confirm the origin of these molecules yet, it could be a previous life test, but they could also belong to a meteorite or other sources", said a cautious Mahaffy in the same presentation. Eigenbrode says the analyzed rocks came from the bottom of what was once a lake at a time when Mars was a much warmer, wetter place.

The discovery of the material should encourage Nasa to explore further into the ground, where fatty acids may reveal the first conclusive signs of life.

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"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is the lead author of one of the two new Science papers.

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft-and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars-are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about".

"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability".

The rover also collected information about the varying levels of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. The space agencies of Europe, Russia and many others, plan to drill deeper and more widely on the surface, which begs the question of what else they might find.

The Curiosity rover which is now trundling around the Gale Crater has found organic material in samples of mudstone, that once upon a time sat at the bottom of an an ancient lake. "And it makes us more confident that if biomarkers" - or direct evidence of biologic activity - "are there, we might find them".

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