A NASA rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of Mars and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane, in findings that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life. The significance of the finding, however, is that the results show organic matter can be preserved in Mars surface sediments.
The discovery of a wide variety of organic molecules and the detection of a seasonal methane pattern - described in two separate studies in the journalScience - add new fuel to the search for past life on Mars, scientists said.
As for the methane, Curiosity's Tunable Laser Spectrometer measured the methane levels in its surrounding atmosphere over five years. "As NASA put it, Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins". The new organic molecule findings are 100 times greater than those previously found on Mars' surface, according to the agency.
"That is a good place for life to have lived if it ever existed on Mars", she said.
Furthermore, Pontefract says, ExoMars and NASA's Mars 2020 mission will use tools that take a different approach to analyze organics. "If you explore both of those paths forward, it's astounding", Eigenbrode said. "And then we went, 'oops, not only did we not find it, but we don't really know what we're looking for if it's not exactly like Earth.' And maybe that was not the best way to go about it". It means that, one day, there is potential for more sophisticated instrumentation to detect a wider range of compounds in Mars samples, including the sorts of molecules made by living organisms, such as lipids, amino acids, sugars, or even nucleobases.
"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.
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The amount of methane peaked at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere at about 2.7 times the level of the lowest seasonal amount.
"We were kind of shocked to see that with the seasons, the signal changes by a factor of three, which is a huge change and completely unexpected", says Chris Webster, a rover scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This work was funded by NASA's Mars Exploration Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. What is needed to find more clues is a mission to Mars with a deep drill.
Webster theorizes the methane created either now or long ago is seeping from deep underground reservoirs up through cracks and fissures in the crust.
Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the awesome consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.
"I don't believe there's life on Mars at the present", Freeman says, because Mars is very dry, very cold and lacks much of an atmosphere.
MIT News checked in with SAM team member Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology at MIT, and a co-author on the Sciencepaper, about what the team's findings might mean for the possibility of life on Mars.
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