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

NASA’s major Mars findings: organic molecules and seasonal changes

NASA’s major Mars findings: organic molecules and seasonal changes

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life. "Organic molecules are usually composed of carbon atoms in rings or long chains, to which are attached other atoms of such elements as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen". The compounds discovered on Mars could have been produced by living things, or they could have been food for those living things.

NASA's Curiosity rover landed inside Mars's 96-mile-wide Gale Crater on August 6, 2012, and since then it has been probing the Red Planet's geology, climate and the question of whether or not it has ever supported microbial life.

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.

NASA is holding a live conference unveiling the fascinating details it has uncovered Mars from its Curiosity Rover mission. The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make auto tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

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Regardless, the detection is a technical achievement, said Williford, because it demonstrates that organic molecules can persist near Mars's surface for billions of years.

One thing is for sure, though - whatever we can figure out about the chemistry of Mars, it's nearly certainly going to add precious details to our understanding of life in the cosmos. Yet over the course of 55 Earth months (three Martian years), Webster and his team were able to use SAM to detect tiny, regular patterns in which methane-natural gas-increased from 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion at the end of northern Mars' summer. On Mars, where we only have a few molecules from a remote probe, this stuff is light years away from being conclusive.

Referring to the findings regarding organic compounds and methane, Webster said, "They hint at an earlier time on Mars when water was present and the existence of primitive life forms was possible".

Today, scientists are announcing they've discovered conclusive evidence that several organic compounds are indeed found on the Red Planet.

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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.

Launched in 2011, Curiosity was created to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes.

"These clathrates lock the methane inside a water-ice crystal structure and are incredibly stable for millions of years until environmental conditions change and suddenly they can release that gas", says Duffy. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.

Scientists say three different types of organic molecules were found by the rover after it dug just two inches (5cm) in the planet's surface. So like the organic molecules, it's not an unambiguous biosignature.

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However, so far, tests were unable to determine how the organic compounds were formed. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter". And, she says, it gives us an idea where to look. "If you can do this on Mars, imagine what you can do with analytical facilities available to us on Earth", he says.

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