Friday, 17 August, 2018

Mars Rover Curiosity has found organic molecules, methane on Mars

NASA news conference Mars announcement NASANASA news The Curiosity Rover made two new discoveries on Mars
Glenn Montgomery | 08 June, 2018, 12:28

Big news from Mars today: NASA's Curiosity rover found ancient traces of organic matter embedded in Martian rocks and detected a "seasonal variation" in atmospheric methane on the Red Planet - an annual pulse of the gas, nearly as if something out there were breathing.

The discovery proves that while Mars is inhospitable today, it previously allowed for "liquid water" to pool, meaning a water lake inside Mars' Gale Crater could have once supported life, NASA said in an announcement on Tuesday. "Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper". We also know that Mars was once warmer and had a denser atmosphere, important requirements for life as we know it. "There are locations, especially subsurface, where organic molecules are well-preserved". Methane, found on Mars before in plumes or patches, has never been detected in instances that scientists had been able to see repeatedly. "That doesn't mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life".

The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake. She pointed out that the surface of Mars is regularly exposed to space radiation, and that radiation and chemicals typically break down organic matter.

The amount of methane peaked at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere at about 2.7 times the level of the lowest seasonal amount.

The organic molecules preserved in 3 billion-year-old bedrock suggest conditions at Mars may have once been conducive to life.

"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. Gale Crater's rim is visible on the horizon. Over the intervening years, fluid flowing thought it would have initiated chemical reactions that could have destroyed the organic matter - the material discovered may in fact be fragments from bigger molecules.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP.

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover snaps a self-portrait at a site called Vera Rubin Ridge on the Martian surface in February 2018 in this image obtained on June 7, 2018. Gases released from the samples at temperatures over 500 degrees Celsius were carried by the helium flow directly into a mass spectrometer.

Another mission, Mars InSight, is heading to Mars right now to study the geological life of the planet.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) spacecraft effectively ruled out cosmic origins following its analysis of the dust left after a close encounter with the comet Siding Spring in 2014. Curiosity has had a somewhat rough go of things over the past few months, breaking its drilling mechanism and having to totally relearn how to use its tool in a new way so that it can continue to pierce Martian rocks.

"It's incredibly exciting, because it shows that Mars is an active planet today", says Caltech planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann, a Mars expert who wasn't involved with the studies.

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