New Mars discoveries advance case for possible life

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.

Knowing that these molecules and compounds were present, then, gives new strength to the idea that life originated or existed on Mars and that more work by the Martian rovers can uncover the past.

A Nasa rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of the planet and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane, in findings that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life.

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

Curiosity also has confirmed sharp seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere. The space agency says that water-rock chemistry might have led to the creation of this methane, but it can't rule out the "possibility of biological origins".

On 6 August 2012, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite (1) arrived on Mars onboard the Curiosity rover. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of worldwide space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet.

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

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The two studies appear in the journal Science.

Scientists have been seeking organic molecules on Mars ever since the 1976 Viking landers. "Organic matter" in this context doesn't mean anything we'd recognize from our lives on Earth. Curiosity has detected large organic molecules inside ancient Martian rocks, as well as methane cycles now active on the planet. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter".

What they claimed they had discovered was a fossilised micro-organism in a Martian meteorite, which they argued was evidence that there has once been life on the Red Planet.

Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater. The 2020 rover will include an advanced spectrometer to scan for organic molecules. With five years of data from a single location, they now have answers.

Finding organic compounds - which are substances that contain carbon and are considered necessary components of life - in 3.5-billion-year-old rocks on Mars is a big deal, ten Kate told Live Science, and so is the discovery of the seasonal methane (CH4) variation in the atmosphere. They are fairly certain that it comes from melting water-based crystals, called clathrates, buried just below the planet's surface. The compounds discovered on Mars could have been produced by living things, or they could have been food for those living things. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade.

All of the outside sources I spoke with said it's important to be skeptical about claims of life, extinct or otherwise, on the Red Planet.

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