Mars Has Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane

Mars Has Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane

The discoveries were found using the US space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

As detailed in a new Science paper, "Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars", some of the soil samples Curiosity took from the bottom of Gale Crater turned up molecules of "thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene".

Both the atmospheric methane and the preserved carbon have inspired confidence that NASA's forthcoming Mars 2020 rover and the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover could uncover additional evidence for ancient life on the Red Planet.

The Mars 2020 rover will scan the Red Planet for signs of ancient life by studying terrain that once consisted of flowing rivers and lakes more than 3.5 billion years ago.

Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, explained that the objective of the mission was to explore the possibility of sustaining life on Mars.

"The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars", said Inge Loes ten Kate, a Utrecht University scientist in an accompanying article in Science. But now new results from NASA's Curiosity rover, including the discovery of ancient organic material, have revived the hope of doing just that. Hints have been found before, but this is the best evidence yet. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars' surface.

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In 2013, it confirmed organic compounds in rocks in a deep part of the crater called Yellowknife Bay, said Jennifer Eigenbrode, who led the organic molecule study published in Science. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine. Organic material can be produced without life. And if life does exist elsewhere, it may be very different or even form differently from how we understand life on Earth. "Organic matter" in this context doesn't mean anything we'd recognize from our lives on Earth. The Martian surface is bombarded with radiation that can degrade organic compounds, explains Eigenbrode.

Researchers can not yet say whether their discovery stems from life or a more mundane geological process. On Mars, that's been a maddening challenge: While scientists have detected bursts of methane on the planet, they've appeared at random - and thus, it's been hard to figure out what the source is. The changes were observed over three Martian years, which are equivalent to almost half a dozen Earth years.

It's the first time "something repeatable in the methane story" has been observed on Mars, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.

Methane gas can be a byproduct of life on Earth, but there are geological processes that can produce it, too. Specifically, NASA says that lower levels of methane were found to decrease in the winter and peak in the summer on an annual basis.

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water - an essential ingredient for life as we know it - to pool at the surface. Despite its aspirations, the Viking program never even found signs life on Mars. What is needed to find more clues is a mission to Mars with a deep drill.

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