NASA robot detects complex organic matter on Mars in 'significant breakthrough'

Terry Joseph
June 8, 2018

Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led the organics study, said she's intrigued by the possibility that life might have existed and adapted on Mars. This new discovery builds on the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved. Earth-based telescopes, spacecraft orbiting Mars and now Curiosity, have measured episodic sudden increases in the background methane content.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins.

Key details about the organics may have been obscured in Curiosity's sample because the rover can only drill two inches into rock.

"The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up", said Curiosity's project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Researchers said the findings correspond with findings of traces of methane, a chemical produced by some organic life forms, in the planet's atmosphere.

The press conference is set to kick off at 2 p.m. EDT today, and while NASA obviously hasn't revealed exactly what it has in store, there's a few things we do know.

The new findings are also detailed in two studies published Thursday in the journal Science. The fact that similar molecules were also present at this new site suggests that this kind of organic material is present in abundance. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

The scientists were surprised to find organic compounds, especially in the amounts detected, considering the harsh conditions, including bombardment of solar radiation on the Martian surface.

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The discoveries were found using the US space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

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

The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis.

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.

Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the wonderful consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.

"It's coming from sub-surface reservoirs" and then seeping up to the surface, Webster says.

Contained below the 3.5 billion-year-old mudstone was a fine-grained sedimentary rock. This is also when life was evolving on our own planet.

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water - an essential ingredient for life as we know it - to pool at the surface. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade.

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