Building blocks of life on Mars found

Life on Mars? NASA’s Curiosity rover discovers ancient evidence on the red planet

A new study published in Science on Thursday presents the first conclusive evidence for large organic molecules on the surface of Mars, a pursuit that began with NASA's Viking landers in the 1970s.

Finding ancient carbon preserved right on the Martian surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface. The organic molecules preserved in 3 billion-year-old bedrock suggest conditions at Mars may have once been conducive to life. Coupled with new evidence of seasonal methane variations in the martian atmosphere, these new findings are an hopeful indicator that life might have once survived on the Red Planet.

Also, thanks to the longevity of the Curiosity rover, scientists have been able to observe a "breathing" of methane in the Martian atmosphere, with the amount increasing in the summer and reducing in the winter.

While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life. The lone ranger of Mars, the Curiosity rover, poked a hole and gathered two rock samples in late 2014 and early 2015.

Carbon, which is the primary ingredient of coal was also found to be in roughly the same quantities as those observed in Martian meteorites found on Earth, and about 100 times greater in concentration than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars' surface.

Attention, however this does not mean that life exists or has ever existed on the Red planet!

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Organic molecules containing chlorine were detected on Mars before.

In a second paper in Science, NASA's Christopher Webster and an global team describe how they have used instruments on-board Curiosity to measure a seasonal variation in methane levels in the Martian atmosphere.

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground. So far, scientists have a few theories: methane may come from the planet itself, or from water under its surface. Once at the surface, the methane sticks to dirt and rocks, with more released into the atmosphere when it's hotter.

To determine whether the methane is biological, Webster said, scientists can weigh the kinds of carbon atoms it contains (life prefers the lighter versions). The key samples in the latest findings came from a spot 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) away.

"All this is possible thanks to the longevity of Curiosity, the long duration of this mission has allowed us to see the patterns in these seasonal changes", said the lead author of this research, Chriss Webster, in a statement released by NASA. "Everything that was needed to support life was there. We need to go to places that we think are the most likely places to find it".

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