Thursday, 13 December, 2018

NASA robot detects complex organic matter on Mars in 'significant breakthrough'

NASA news conference Mars announcement GETTY NASANASA's news conference will broadcast live today at 7pm UK time
Frank Williams | 08 June, 2018, 07:19

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. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

In four locations, including the spot nicknamed Mojave (pictured here), the Curiosity rover discovered thiophenes (molecules that include a ring of carbon and sulphur atoms) and other substances that on Earth can be linked to biological activity. This is also when life was evolving on our own planet.

"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.

'I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet'. But the organic molecules identified by the car-sized rover then were too few and ambiguous. The rock samples were analyzed by SAM, which uses an oven to heat the samples (in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, or 500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules from the powdered rock. "It probably indicates more active water in the subsurface than we understood", scientist Kirsten Siebach, Martian geologist at Rice University not involved with the studies, told Gizmodo.

On Mars, organic molecules could have been produced by some form of either present or past lifeforms.

First of all, life's "building blocks" would imply something like amino acids or nucleotides. This is the most compelling evidence yet that this dry planet once held lakes filled with carbon-based compounds capable of sustaining life.

Today, in a much-anticipated announcement live-streamed by NASA, it announced both an abundance of organic molecules and seasonal, recurrent releases of methane gas into the atmosphere of planet Mars.

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For years, NASA's Curiosity rover has patiently gathered samples on the surface of Mars. The space agency says that water-rock chemistry might have led to the creation of this methane, but it can't rule out the "possibility of biological origins".

"If there are no organics, we can pretty much forget about there being life or ever having been life on Mars", says Dr. Weintraub.

And although hopes were high that the two landers and their instruments would detect signs of life or organic compounds in samples taken from the surface, that didn't happen. So they looked elsewhere. That's because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with radiation that can break down organic compounds. Some of our planet's earliest organisms may have been methanogens - microbes that eat organic molecules and exhale methane gas. Or reactions driven by Mars's ancient volcanoes could have formed the compounds from primordial carbon dioxide.

NASA says the Mars 2020 rover is made up of about 85 percent of heritage hardware from the Curiosity.

This latest discovery of organics does more than open the door for more study of organic matter on Mars.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode. "I think we're moving toward extant [the opposite of extinct] life detection again".

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