Questions: Roger Summons on finding organic matter on Mars

Questions: Roger Summons on finding organic matter on Mars

Big news from Mars today: NASA's Curiosity rover found ancient traces of organic matter embedded in Martian rocks and detected a "seasonal variation" in atmospheric methane on the Red Planet - an annual pulse of the gas, nearly as if something out there were breathing.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA's (European Space Agency's) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

The Curiosity rover, which has travelled 19.3 km since it landed in the Gale crater almost six years ago, detected a number of organic molecules in pieces of Martian mudstone it drilled from the lake bed and heated in its oven. One of NASA's aims with the Curiosity Rover is to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet. (3) report a strong seasonal variation in atmospheric methane, the simplest organic molecule, in the martian atmosphere. Still, neither find constitutes evidence of life, as Curiosity team members were careful to stress yesterday; organics and methane can be produced by geological processes, and the origin of the stuff Curiosity observed remains unknown. But now new results from NASA's Curiosity rover, including the discovery of ancient organic material, have revived the hope of doing just that.

It previously found hints of methane and organic compounds, but these findings are the best evidence yet. "It tells us that this ancient environment on Mars could have supported life", Eigenbrode said.

There's also excitement because Curiosity found this stuff without having to look very hard: the organics turned up in some mud that looked likely.

"These clathrates lock the methane inside a water-ice crystal structure and are incredibly stable for millions of years until environmental conditions change and suddenly they can release that gas", says Duffy. Though those molecules are commonly associated with organic life, NASA conceded that they could have been produced through other means. Because that's what happens when you go digging around Mars. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock.

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

NASA says the Mars 2020 rover is made up of about 85 percent of heritage hardware from the Curiosity.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life.

On top of that, after keeping close tabs on methane levels in the Martian atmosphere, scientists have finally confirmed something weird is definitely going on, and they think they know what's causing it.

Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater.

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. Such incremental progress is the whole point of NASA's Mars exploration program, Freissinet notes.

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

These may be "organic" in that they include carbon, but we're not aware of these being precursors to anything biological.

To get firmer answers, researchers will need to get equipment to Mars that's sensitive enough to detect life's thumb on the chemical scales.

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