Mars Curiosity Rover Found Ancient Organic Material and 'Mysterious' Methane, NASA Announces

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Now, the rover's pulled together a veritable feast.

"Both these findings are breakthroughs in astrobiology", wrote Inge Loes ten Kate, of the University of Tübingen in Germany, in an accompanying commentary in Science. Those molecules are familiar building blocks for life here on Earth, including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

The Mars 2020 rover won't represent the first jump in camera improvement as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers had 10 each, and the Curiosity rover had 17.

In addition to finding organic molecules in the rocks in Gale Crater, rover scientists are reporting another intriguing finding.

Here on Earth, 95 percent of all methane molecules are the product of living chemistry.

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. "This gives us a lot of hope going forward in terms of organic detection on Mars", Dr. Pontefract says.

So the rover was directed to drive about 4 miles away to the base of Mt.

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The Gale Crater was once filled with water fed by streams. Samples were drawn from two locations, Mojave and Confidence hills, and subjected to Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite. Yet when NASA's twin Viking probes landed on Mars in 1976, their studies suggested something startling: Martian soil, it seemed, contained less carbon than lifeless lunar rocks.

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", Eigenbrode said in the release.

But the scientists can not say what the larger molecules were or how they formed.

The compounds may have come from a meteorite or geological formations similar to coal and black shale on Earth, Ms Eigenbrode said.

As for the methane, Curiosity's Tunable Laser Spectrometer measured the methane levels in its surrounding atmosphere over five years.

A Nasa rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of the planet and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane, in findings that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life.

It previously found hints of methane and organic compounds, but these findings are the best evidence yet.

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"For the first time we have something that we can get a handle on", said Dr Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Or it could be ancient, belched out billions of years ago by geologic or biological processes and then trapped in matrices of ice and rock that unfreeze when warmed by the sun. In this case, Curiosity found molecules with names like "thiophene" (C4H4S) and "dimethylsulfide" (C2H6S) that aren't all that rare in the solar system.

Dr Webster said the difference was much larger than what you would expect if the methane was produced by the breakdown of organic matter from space. No one knows what's making this methane, but scientists speculate that it's released from underground pockets. That's a huge change, completely unexpected. What do we stand to gain from these missions anyway?

The source of that methane, however, remains a mystery, he said.

One thing is for sure, though - whatever we can figure out about the chemistry of Mars, it's nearly certainly going to add precious details to our understanding of life in the cosmos. "But it doesn't tell us that life was there".

"We can not rule out its creation from biological activity ..." However, whether such life ever existed on Mars remains the big unknown.

Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the incredible consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.

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