Curiosity Rover Discovers Ancient 'Building Blocks for Life' on Mars

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater.

Methane in the martian atmosphere has been detected before, but only in isolated patches or plumes of higher concentrations, not in any repeatable pattern.

NASA's Curiosity rover has uncovered organic material in an ancient lakebed and confirmed a seasonal cycle of methane - offering the strongest evidence yet of potential life, past or even present, on the Red Planet.

They may have also have been carried to Mars on an asteroid, for instance.

"The results convincingly show the long-awaited detection of organic compounds on Mars".

Researchers can not yet say whether their discovery stems from life or a more mundane geological process. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. All we can say from the data is that there is complex organic matter similar to what is found in many equivalent aged rocks on the Earth.

"The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at the time", wrote Utrecht University astrobiologist Inge Loes ten Kate of the Netherlands.

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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. But for this sample, Eigenbrode and her colleagues only analyzed the gases that were released above 400 degrees Celsius.

Biogeochemist and geologist Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is lead author of one of the two new Science papers, the one related to organic molecules.

"Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper", she said. Pictured, a computer-generated view depicting part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light. Curiosity has had a somewhat rough go of things over the past few months, breaking its drilling mechanism and having to totally relearn how to use its tool in a new way so that it can continue to pierce Martian rocks. The timing of the pulses provides an important clue. In chemistry, almost all molecules containing both carbon and hydrogen are organic compounds.

"Once it's on the surface, the temperature on the surface regulates the way in which it holds on to the methane through 'stickiness, ' or surface adsorption as we call it", he says. That could even be happening beneath the surface now, the researchers said.

The methane study, spearheaded by JPL atmospheric scientist Chris Webster, is also intriguing for astrobiologists.

NASA's InSight Lander, launched on May 5, will land on Mars on November 26.

"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said. Nearly exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about".

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