NASA Reveals Organic Molecules and Seasonal Methane Spikes Found on Mars

Mindy Sparks
June 8, 2018

Almost six years into its survey of a site called Gale Crater on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has delivered what may be the biggest discovery yet in its quest for signs of habitability and life: Organic molecules are abundant in Red Planet rocks, and the simplest organic molecule, methane, seasonally blows through the thin Martian air.

The organic molecules, discovered in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, contain carbon and hydrogen, and might also include oxygen and nitrogen. "Everything that was needed to support life was there". Today, NASA will be hosting a live discussion to reveal the findings uncovered from its Mars Curiosity rover. The results are reported in a pair of papers published Thursday in Science.

Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist at Goddard, revealed the first news behind all the hype was the discovery of organic molecules from an ancient lake bed. Organic molecules pop up frequently in space, but it's neat that Mars had life's building blocks during a time when many think it was more habitable. 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. What the authors have found is a systematic variation in methane concentration with season, with the highest concentrations occurring at the Gale Crater towards the end of the northern summer.

The compounds might have come from a meteorite, or from geological formations akin to coal and black shale on Earth, or some form of life, Eigenbrode said. The molecules could be the remnants of past organisms, the result of chemical reactions with rocks or simply space debris.

The super exciting part is that the method used to detect these chemicals indicates they're not floating around in the rock all alone, but are smaller pieces of organic chemistry that's been torn off even bigger, more complicated materials.

There is a seasonal variation to the methane that repeats, which means the methane is being released from the Martian surface or from reservoirs beneath the surface.

A thick strata of olivine might be a potential contributor, leaking a steady flow of methane as it reacts with water and carbon dioxide in a process called serpentinisation.

The facility is hosting 10 university teams Thursday for an exercise on extracting water from simulated Martian subsurface ice. But for now, there's no evidence for any such bacteria.

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

"We've been able to rule out some of the more simple or accepted ideas of Mars's methane", Dr Webster said.

"With this new data, we again can not rule out microbial activity as a potential source", Webster said.

All of the outside sources I spoke with said it's important to be skeptical about claims of life, extinct or otherwise, on the Red Planet.

In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. On Earth, such carbon-rich compounds are one of life's cornerstones.

There's so much left to learn about Mars. Mars doesn't recycle its rock the way that Earth does-maybe its ancient dust can teach us a thing or two about our own planet's history, said Siebach.

These results also inform scientists' decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars.

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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