Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Sci-tech | By Brandy Patterson

Mars rover uncovers potential for life in ancient lakebed


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. When they did experiments in their laboratory on Earth to bake samples containing those three types of organic carbon, the readings were all consistent with what was detected on Mars.

At this point, there's simply no way of knowing whether the organic molecules and the methane findings point to potential life on Mars.

And while methane had previously been found in Mars' atmosphere in "large, unpredictable plumes", NASA said it has now found methane levels that follow seasonal trend changes with more methane appearing in warm summer months before dropping in the winter.

Although there is not enough information to know whether the carbon molecules were created by biological or non-biological processes, it is possible that they could be a source of methane, Dr Eigenbrode said.

The rock fragments were heated to more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rover's instruments looked at the molecules that wafted away at the high temperatures.

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The scientists hope to find better preserved organic compounds with Curiosity or other rovers that would allow them to check for chemical signatures of life. And life as we know it requires organic molecules to exist.

Both studies resulting from the mission were published online today in the journal Science. If there was, then that life would have left behind organic molecules when it decayed. That's a harder question to address scientifically, but I think that we need to give the search for life on Mars due diligence.

It had to stop analysing samples on the Red Planet after a mechanical problem took the rover drill offline in December 2016.

"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.

NASA has good evidence that Gale Crater where Curiosity is rolling around used to be a lake.

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

The complex organic matter was found buried - and preserved - in ancient, three-billion-year-old sediments, suggesting that the planet could have once been home to life.

Over the years, scientists have amassed a number of clues that can help answer the question of Mars' habitability, including evidence of liquid water. The methane could even be trapped in water-based crystals beneath the surface. The host of the session, assistant director of science for communications in NASA's Planetary Science Division Michelle Thaller, began by clearing up any rumors that the agency would announce that they had found alien life.

"It could be from rock processes", processes that have been going on during the billions of years since Mars formed.

"We have no proof that the methane is formed biologically, but we can not rule it out, even with this new data set", Webster said.

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"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said. This is also when life was evolving on our own planet.

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