Thursday, 18 October, 2018

NASA robot detects complex organic matter on Mars in 'significant breakthrough'

The Curiosity Mars Rover The Curiosity Mars Rover
Grady Vargas | 08 June, 2018, 12:27

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.

A NASA rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of Mars and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane, in findings that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life. Hints have been found before, but this is the best evidence yet.

The material was found after the rover drilled into the surface of a 3.5 billion-year-old mudstone at the bottom of the Gale crater. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbour and still might. They can come from living and nonliving sources, but because many are necessary for and produced by life on Earth, they're considered possible biosignatures - signs of the presence of life.

NASA is remaining characteristically tight-lipped, but has confirmed the announcement will feature "new science results from NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover". Sadly, most scientists dismissed this claim in the decade that followed - finding other explanations for the rock's formation. Eigenbrode is the lead author on a paper presenting the discovery in the June 8 edition of the journal Science. In a companion article, an outside expert describes the findings as "breakthroughs in astrobiology".

Kirsten Siebach, a Rice University geologist who also was not involved in the studies, is equally excited.

If microbial life was present on Mars, it would not have gone hungry.

"The big takeaway is that we can find evidence". "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter". We also know that Mars was once warmer and had a denser atmosphere, important requirements for life as we know it.

"Once it's on the surface, the temperature on the surface regulates the way in which it holds on to the methane through 'stickiness, ' or surface adsorption as we call it", he says. Certainly, there are geological processes that could make methane levels change over the Martian year, she said.

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This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it.

The Curiosity rover has lasted three times as long as it was meant to and is still going, which helped with the study of seasonal methane cycles.

"Even nowadays on Earth, we see a large influx of extraterrestrial [organic] material in the form of interplanetary dust and meteorites", ten Kate said. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference".

The Curiosity rover, launched in 2011 with about $2.5 billion worth of scientific equipment with the intent of exploring and analyzing Mars' Gale Crater. The diameter is slightly smaller than a USA dime. Once at the surface, the methane sticks to dirt and rocks, with more released into the atmosphere when it's hotter.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient, we don't know if it's modern - it could be either", Webster said. Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lakebed have yielded complex organic macromolecules that look strikingly similar to kerogen, the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth.

In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater.

Dr Webster said the difference was much larger than what you would expect if the methane was produced by the breakdown of organic matter from space.

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