Scientists found loads more molecules associated with life on Mars

Has NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover found something important on the surface of the Red Planet - perhaps even traces of life?

For years, NASA's Curiosity rover has patiently gathered samples on the surface of Mars. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbour and still might.

NASA is remaining characteristically tight-lipped, but has confirmed the announcement will feature "new science results from NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover". "Curiosity has shown that Gale Crater was habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, with conditions comparable to those on the early Earth, where life evolved around that time".

The two studies build on and advance smaller detections of atmospheric methane and ancient organic compounds on Mars.

The surface of Mars may be inhospitable today, but there is strong evidence that the Martian climate once accommodated liquid water - which, as most of you will know, is one of the key components to life - to pool at the surface.

Methane, the simplest organic molecule, ranges "between 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion, peaking near the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere", said the report, based on three years of data.

"Both these findings are breakthroughs in astrobiology", wrote Inge Loes ten Kate, of the University of Tübingen in Germany, in an accompanying commentary in Science. "We can find organic matter preserved in mudstones that are more than three billion years old", Siebach said.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, though they can also be produced by chemical reactions unrelated to life.

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Future testing of the carbon isotopes in the methane could make the picture clearer, but for now we can't get too carried away - although the new results are a massive step towards discovering even more.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said.

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover drilled this hole to collect sample material from a rock target called "Buckskin" on July 30, 2015, during the 1060th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars.

As with methane, there could well be non-biological explanations for the presence of carbon-containing molecules on Mars, such as geologic processes or impacts by asteroids, comet, meteors and interplanetary dust.

There is a seasonal variation to the methane that repeats, which means the methane is being released from the Martian surface or from reservoirs beneath the surface.

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.

"With this new data, we again can not rule out microbial activity as a potential source", Webster said. The twin Vikings came up pretty much empty.

"We have greatly expanded our search for organic compounds, which is fundamental in the search for life", said Paul Mahaffy, study author and director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.


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