Newest NASA Discoveries Could Boost Search For Ancient Life On Mars

Newest NASA Discoveries Could Boost Search For Ancient Life On Mars

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

While not direct evidence of life, the compounds drilled from Mars' Gale Crater are the most diverse array ever taken from the surface of the planet since the robotic vehicle landed in 2012, experts say.

"Organic molecules serve as the building blocks of life while most of the methane in Earth's atmospheric comes from animal and plant life, scientists explained". Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it's a mystery what could be causing it on Mars. Organic matter can be one of several things: a record detailing ancient life, a food source for life or something that exists in the place of life.

Curiosity also has confirmed seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Another noticed the methane levels around Curiosity varied by the season. There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff.

This does not mean life was discovered on Mars... yet.

More powerful spacecraft are needed to prove whether life ever existed on Mars. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

The amount of methane peaked at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere at about 2.7 times the level of the lowest seasonal amount.

The organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock in Gale Crater - believed to once contain a shallow lake around the size of Lake Ontario - suggest conditions back then may have been conducive to life.

"It's a gas in the atmosphere of Mars that really shouldn't be there", says NASA Jet Propulsion Lab scientist Chris Webster.

The Gale Crater was once filled with water fed by streams.

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"There's three possible sources for the organic material", said astrobiologist Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

For years, NASA's Curiosity rover has patiently gathered samples on the surface of Mars. 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.

Another team of scientists, led by Christopher Webster from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence that methane concentrations detected on Mars follow strong seasonal variations.

Webster theorizes the methane created either now or long ago is seeping from deep underground reservoirs up through cracks and fissures in the crust.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample - fragments of larger organic molecules that don't vaporize easily.

This work was funded by NASA's Mars Exploration Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington.

It successfully tested a new drilling method in May on the Red Planet, making a 50-millimetre deep hole in a target called "Duluth".

The source is still unclear, but it may be stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates, researchers said.

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