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Organic Matter In 3-Billion-Year-Old Mudstones On Mars Found By NASA's Curiosity Rover

Jun 08, 2018 01:41 AM EDT
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Life on Mars just got much more likely as NASA's Curiosity rover discovers ancient organic matter in the rocks of the Red Planet.

Researchers take a revolutionary step in the search for alien life on Mars with organic matter unearthed from the planet's surface as well as methane in its skies. Two new studies share the Curiosity rover's discoveries that may pave the way for future missions studying life on Mars.

Organic Matter In Ancient Rocks

The first of the two studies, published in the journal Science on Friday, June 8, described the discovery as tough organic molecules that were unearthed in mudstone around 3 billion years old. The organic molecules contain hydrogen, carbon, and potentially oxygen, nitrogen, and others.

These molecules don't necessarily indicate life, since they could be produced from non-biological processes. However, it does suggest that the planet could have supported life in the ancient past.

It's a discovery that unlocks all sorts of possibilities, even if the team isn't sure yet of the origins of these molecules.

"Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes," Jen Eigenbrode of the Goddard Space Flight Center explains in a statement.

Scientists already know that the planet's climate used to allow for the existence of liquid water. The newest data from Curiosity reveals that Mars's Gale crater used to have a watery lake that contained organic molecules necessary to support life 3.5 billion years in the past.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, says. "I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet."

Seasonal Methane In Mars's Atmosphere

In a second study, published in Science as well, scientists shared that the Curiosity rover also detected methane in the planet's atmosphere — and the volume varies every season. Apparently, the methane levels in Gale shoot up in summer months, then drop during winter.

The presence of methane could be caused by water and rock chemistry, but it's also possible for it to have biological origins.

The combination of methane in Mars's atmosphere and organic matter in the planet's rocks offer hope that scientists are on the right track at finding signs of life — if there is life to find, anyway.

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