Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

Newest NASA Discoveries Could Boost Search For Ancient Life On Mars

Newest NASA Discoveries Could Boost Search For Ancient Life On Mars

While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet's surface and subsurface. "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".

These results also inform scientists' decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars. The European Space Agency plans to launch its own rover in a few years and NASA is building a powerful follow-on to Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover, that will be equipped with even more powerful instruments to advance the search for life.

'I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet'.

NASA is holding a live conference unveiling the fascinating details it has uncovered Mars from its Curiosity Rover mission.

The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis. But Marc Fries, a planetary scientist who curates the cosmic dust collection at NASA Johnson Space Center, takes a more skeptical view.

Scientists have been seeking organic molecules on Mars ever since the 1976 Viking landers. "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".

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water - an essential ingredient for life as we know it - to pool at the surface. Curiosity has detected large organic molecules inside ancient Martian rocks, as well as methane cycles now active on the planet.

For years, NASA's Curiosity rover has patiently gathered samples on the surface of Mars. That's not to say there are no non-biological sources, but on our world they're swamped by cow farts and belching bacteria.

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NASA calls the Curiosity rover the "largest and most capable" device ever constructed to explore Mars.

"Those two features are very important for the preservation of organic material in rock on Earth", Dr Eigenbrode said.

NASA announced the discoveries in a livestream this afternoon, saying Curiosity found the latest evidence for ancient life on Mars in rocks. So they looked elsewhere.

Here on Earth, 95 percent of all methane molecules are the product of living chemistry. Methane is ubiquitous in places like the atmospheres of gas-giant planets.

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. And scientists already expected that, in the early, more turbulent days of the solar system, organic compounds would rain down on Mars. Over the intervening years, fluid flowing thought it would have initiated chemical reactions that could have destroyed the organic matter - the material discovered may in fact be fragments from bigger molecules. "I think we're moving toward extant [the opposite of extinct] life detection again".

"The awesome consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars".

Potential contaminants were analyzed and accounted for, so the results are the most conclusive yet.

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