Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars

NASA Curiosity rover hits organic pay dirt on Mars

Now, scientists have found signs of complex, macromolecular organic matter in samples of the crater's 3-billion-year-old mudstones - layers of mud and clay that are typically deposited on the floors of ancient lakes.

That said, the agency hopes future missions to the red planet, NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA's ExoMars rover, could delve into these findings and reveal the complete history of our neighboring planet. When the samples reached 500 to 820 degrees Celsius, Curiosity's instruments detected a range of vapours that researchers believe are products of larger organic molecules similar to those found in coal, which were trapped in Martian rocks in the distant past. While water-rock chemistry might have produced those variations, NASA said it "cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins".

NASA officials discuss the findings of the Mars Curiosity rover. We might find even more evidence in future missions, too. Eigenbrode is the lead author on a paper presenting the discovery in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

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Experts have hailed the two new studies as milestones for astrobiology.

"We have detected the bits and pieces of something bigger", said Eigenbrode.

The discovery is not a direct evidence of life. We don't know if that methane is ancient, we don't know if it's modern. "A rigorous approach based on available evidence starts with the scientifically responsible default explanation that Mars is and always has been lifeless", Fries says. Tellingly, the methane levels appear to periodically spike in time with Martian seasons, being about three times higher in the sunny summertime than in the darker, colder winter.

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Now, with years of Curiosity's atmospheric readings at their disposal, Webster and his colleagues were able to analyze 55 Earth months (or roughly three Martian years) of data, finding that there were indeed low levels of background radiation - and that it seemed to experience seasonal surges, almost tripling at its peak near summer's end in the northern hemisphere (and winter's end in the south). The magnitude of these seasonal peaks - by a factor of three - was far more than scientists expected. "We now have really good reasons to look a whole lot harder", he says. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference".

Curiosity sampled sites by drilling five centimeters below the surface in the Gale crater, which is where the rover landed in 2012. The diameter is slightly smaller than a USA dime. Some of our planet's earliest organisms may have been methanogens - microbes that eat organic molecules and exhale methane gas. Once at the surface, the methane sticks to dirt and rocks, with more released into the atmosphere when it's hotter.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference. "That doesn't mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life", he added. The twin Vikings came up pretty much empty. "To do that you either have to find an outcrop at the surface that has been recently exposed ... or you have to drill deep", she said. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.

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This latest discovery of organics does more than open the door for more study of organic matter on Mars. SAM's main aim was to search for organic molecules on the martian surface.

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