Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Research | By Derrick Holloway

NASA's Curiosity Rover Finds Chemical Building Blocks For Life On Mars

NASA's Curiosity Rover Finds Chemical Building Blocks For Life On Mars

Has NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover found something important on the surface of the Red Planet - perhaps even traces of life? But they aren't proof of life on Mars, or even necessarily strong evidence that there's anything living, or anything that used to be alive, out there.

The search for organic molecules actually began on Mars in 1976 via Viking 1 and II, so the finding of them by Curiosity is an achievement a long time coming.

"A lot of us were left scratching our heads trying to figure out, "What does this mean?' Then we turned around and realised, 'Let's just go and find more", said Dr Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre.

"Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes".

Curiosity has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variation of methane on Mars - indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water. On Mars, that's been a maddening challenge: While scientists have detected bursts of methane on the planet, they've appeared at random - and thus, it's been hard to figure out what the source is. Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lakebed have yielded complex organic macromolecules that look strikingly similar to kerogen, the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth.

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"That is a good place for life to have lived if it ever existed on Mars", she said. The Martian surface is bombarded with radiation that can degrade organic compounds, explains Eigenbrode.

Three Mars years' worth of data shows that along with spikes in methane, levels swing between 0.24 and 0.65 parts per billion, peaking in the northern hemisphere summer.

Organic molecules were found in 3 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface.

"We were kind of shocked to see that with the seasons, the signal changes by a factor of three, which is a huge change and completely unexpected", says Chris Webster, a rover scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity". This new discovery of old organics strengthens that possibility and offers new insights into how things preserve in Mars rock, Grinspoon says. The changes were observed over three Martian years, which are equivalent to almost half a dozen Earth years.

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Leading contenders have included some sort of chemical reaction based on a rock called olivine, meteorites dropping organic materials into the atmosphere, or a release from a sub-surface reservoir close to the surface. "So way under the ground this methane is trapped".

This work was funded by NASA's Mars Exploration Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington.

Curiosity tested out the technique using it to drill a 2-inch-deep hole into a target called Duluth.

Inclusion of carbon dioxide in the mix could potentially lower the pressures required to form these lattices, allowing methane clathrates to form just a few metres below the surface. Nearly exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish.

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