Mars Rover Curiosity Finds More Clues to the Potential for Life

Cesar Mills
June 8, 2018

In two studies published Thursday in the journal Science, this new finding from NASA's Curiosity rover is paired with another discovery: The planet's methane - another organic molecule usually (but not always) produced by living beings - varies with the seasons.

Naturally, the usual UFO fans have jumped on this and are suggesting it's probably aliens - or at least some sign of life on the Red Planet.

NASA said that water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists said they can't rule out the possibility of biological origins.

But National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists emphasized there could be nonbiological explanations for both discoveries made by the Curiosity rover at a site called Gale crater, leaving the issue of Martian life a tantalizing but unanswered question.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA science director at agency headquarters, said in a statement.

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft - and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars - are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet.

The results revealed a wealth of organics, Eigenbrode said - including some that had carbons linked in ring structures (such as benzenes) and others that include carbon chains (such as propane).

Methane is considered the simplest organic molecule.

For the previous mud stone samples that had produced the chlorinated molecules, scientists had heated the powdered rock to 200 degrees Celsius. "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".

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But the boffins are far from certain the the organic molecules or methane that Curiosity turned up have anything to do with life. That's because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with radiation that can break down organic compounds. Here on Earth, we associate methane with life, but it's a mystery what could be causing it on Mars.

Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years. One of their most hard tasks is to prove that the carbon they find is biogenic, and not produced through non-living, geological processes.

The Curiosity rover recently started drilling into the surface of Mars again after a almost two-year break due to a mechanical issue.

But NASA managers say the new discoveries show the agency's Mars exploration plans are on the right track.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", said Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper. Using SAM, Webster and his colleagues have found a persistent background level of methane in the atmosphere above Gale Crater over the last five years of about 0.4 part per billion-a scarcely detectable trace, to be sure, but enough to pique astrobiologists' interest.

In December 2012, the rover's two-year mission was extended indefinitely.

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground.

MIT News checked in with SAM team member Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology at MIT, and a co-author on the Science paper, about what the team's findings might mean for the possibility of life on Mars.

Other reports by GizPress

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