The Mars Curiosity rover made an interesting discovery while on our neighboring red planet: organic material and a "mysterious" methane.
"The new findings - "tough" organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere - appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science", NASA reports in a news release recapping the Thursday, June 7 press conference.
NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars has found complex organic matter on the surface of the red planet. If scientists keep drilling deeper and more widely, as they plan to do with the European and Russian space agencies' ExoMars rover and NASA's Mars 2020 mission, who knows what they might find?
Curiosity also has confirmed seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere. "Short of taking a picture of a fossil in a rock on Mars, [finding life there] is extremely hard to do scientifically", says Chris Webster, a chemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the methane study.
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Since Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, the rover has been exploring Gale Crater, a massive impact crater roughly the size of CT and Rhode Island, for geological and chemical evidence of the chemical elements and other conditions necessary to sustain life.
It was to a great fanfare of publicity that researchers announced they had found evidence for past life on Mars in 1996. The findings could help to guide the search for ancient microbial life and improve our understanding of seasonal processes on Mars.
Thimble-sized samples of material baked slowly in temperatures of between 500-840 degrees Celsius, revealed the grey mudstone contained different carbon-based molecules to those found at Yellowknife Bay.
Some sort of biology can't be ruled out, of course, but any kind of complex organic chemistry would still tell us something about how life arose on Earth. It's present in other places in our solar system that could host life, like Saturn and Jupiter's moons Enceladus, Europa and Titan. This could be a sign that there is a reservoir of methane somewhere under the surface that was generated by chemical reactions involving water or, possibly, by Martian microbes. The 96-mile crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, was most likely formed by meteor impact between 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.
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NASA says the Mars 2020 rover is made up of about 85 percent of heritage hardware from the Curiosity.
Bottom line: NASA's Curiosity rover has found evidence preserved in Martian rocks, suggesting the planet could have supported ancient life. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.
He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground. Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said in the statement.
"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP.
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"With this new data, we again can not rule out microbial activity as a potential source", Webster said. Much as a detective figures out whodunnit by filling in all the details of a crime first, astrobiologists set about piecing together a picture of the Martian environment to figure out if the planet could even support life, now or in the past.