Sunday, 24 June, 2018

Rover finds 2 new life clues on Mars

NASA news conference Mars announcement GETTY NASANASA's news conference will broadcast live today at 7pm UK time
Edmund Robinson | 08 June, 2018, 12:28

The Mars Curiosity rover made an interesting discovery while on our neighboring red planet: organic material and a "mysterious" methane.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA science director at agency headquarters, said in a statement. Eigenbrode clarified, however, that the matter was not evidence of life as non-biological entities can create organic molecules. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it's a mystery what could be causing it on Mars.

Curiosity has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variation of methane on Mars - indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water. Curiosity reports that methane levels on Mars go up and down in a predictable cycle. Mars2020 will shed light on the organic molecules-and prepare a sample that some future mission could bring back to Earth. The organic material discovered on Mars is rich in sulphur, which would have also helped to preserve it. "It tells us that this ancient environment on Mars could have supported life", Eigenbrode said.

The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake.

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.

The Mars 2020 rover will scan the Red Planet for signs of ancient life by studying terrain that once consisted of flowing rivers and lakes more than 3.5 billion years ago.




"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", said Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper. It has been tacking across the floor of Gale Crater on Mars for five years, returning stunning images of Martian landscapes, with vistas opening up to show rocky outcrops seamed with mineral veins.

In 2013, it confirmed organic compounds in rocks in a deep part of the crater called Yellowknife Bay, said Jennifer Eigenbrode, who led the organic molecule study published in Science.

The rover drilled samples from sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four sites in the Gale Crater, which it has been exploring for years. The planned missions will use tools that can look for organic compounds directly in the rock.

"As temperatures change from winter to summer, the methane changes greatly because as the surface gets a little bit warmer it releases a lot more methane", he said.

Webster and his colleagues suspect that the methane comes from deep underground, and temperature swings on Mars's surface throttle its flow upward. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it's "geologically alive", or active below the surface. Still, this discovery is very encouraging in the context of what we know about Mars in the distant past. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about". Even more compelling was the fact that these compounds seemed to have broken off even bigger, more complex "macromolecules" - substances found on Earth in coal, black shale and other ancient organic remains.

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