NASA's 'organic matter' discovery is more evidence of life on Mars

Clark Diaz
June 9, 2018

"That doesn't mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life", he added. Previous missions, including Viking in the 1970s, surprised scientists, however, when no trace of these compounds was found.

To identify organic material in the Mars' soil, the Curiosity rover drilled into sedimentary rocks, known as mudstone, from four areas in Gale Crater.

Potential contaminants were analyzed and accounted for, so the results are the most conclusive yet. The presence of perchlorate salts in the rocks was another problem that could have thrown the analysis.

Q: What could be the possible sources for these organic molecules, biological or otherwise?

A 2018 self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on Vera Rubin Ridge, made up of a composite of photo from the rover.

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This mudstone was formed gradually billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. Above 400˚C perchlorates are unable to react with organic molecules, enabling the team to analyse gases from the samples without interference. The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide. High levels of sulfur in the samples are thought to have helped preserve the organics from conditions on Mars. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter. "And what it does, it gives us a key to unlocking the mysteries associated with Mars methane because now we have something to test our models and our understanding against". "The first one would be life, which we don't know about". It's present in other places in our solar system that could host life, like Saturn and Jupiter's moons Enceladus, Europa and Titan. 'Organic matter is one more ingredient that could support life.

"This is an important finding", says Samuel Kounaves, a Tufts University chemist and former lead scientist for NASA's Phoenix Mars lander.

"This is the first really trusted detection", co-author Sanjeev Gupta, a professor of Earth science at Imperial College London, told AFP.

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

NASA scientist Chris Webster confirmed that water has been found on the martian surface and has been present for "a very long time", which points strongly toward a "habitable environment". "Organic" carbon can mean biologically derived, but it can also have nonbiological sources.

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But the good news didn't end with that announcement.

The compounds might have come from a meteorite, or from geological formations akin to coal and black shale on Earth, or some form of life, Eigenbrode said. The release of methane is an active process on Mars, which could suggest new things about what's unfolding on the Red Planet.

A seasonal change in methane levels is exciting, he said, because 95 percent of the methane observed on Earth is the result of biology. 'Once we saw it return a second Mars year, we knew we had a big discovery'. Schiaparelli ended up crashing into the Martian surface, but TGO arrived safely and recently settled into its final orbit. Eventually, we would like to measure the carbon-13 to carbon-12 ratio that - if highly depleted - would be suggestive of biological production'.

Webster's latest study, also published today in Science, shows that Mars seasonally "breathes" the stuff.

Scientists say the Mars rover has found more evidence that life could have existed on the red planet.

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