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NASA Discovers Organic Material on Mars

NASA Discovers Organic Material on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Rover discovered organic material on Mars in the form of carbon-based molecules, as well as new evidence of methane cycling.

As part of its ongoing stream of data coming from its exploration of the Red Planet, NASA unveiled the latest discovery from the Curiosity Rover, which once again may lead to a fundamental change in how we view Mars.

During a press conference held yesterday, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover discovered organic matter locked in soil samples taken from 3 billion-year-old mudstone, as well as detecting methane in the Martian atmosphere. While neither is confirmation of life on Mars, both are required components of a planet containing life.

The organic molecules uncovered in the ancient soil contain carbon and hydrogen, and may also show signs of oxygen, nitrogen, and a few other elements. These are all commonly associated with life, but NASA is quick to point out that there may be other explanations, and organic molecules can be created by non-biological means as well. So while the organic material may not be an indication of life but it shows NASA may be on the right path.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”

Searching for signs of life on Mars is the obsession of countless researchers, and the more info we receive, the closer we get to understanding what happened on the planet. There are even hints that there is still water on Mars – or maybe in it – and if so that could cause us to change the way we look at Mars.

The announcement also focused on a second discovery involving methane cycles on Mars. Methane is the simplest organic molecule and is typically seen as a good indicator of the potential of a planet/moon hosting life. Discovering methane doesn’t necessarily mean there is life or even organic material (water-rock chemistry can also lead to methane emissions), but you can’t have life – as we know it – without methane.

A few years back scientists confirmed the presence of methane on Mars, which was discovered through series of giant, mysterious plumes that reached the atmosphere. The latest discovery hints at seasonal emissions over the course of three Martian years (roughly six Earth years). It’s not entirely clear what this means, but it is a significant new chapter in the ongoing mystery of the presence of methane on the Red Planet.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it,” said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This is all possible because of Curiosity’s longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal ‘breathing.'”

For casual fans lured into the announcement, the end results may seem a little underwhelming. As with most scientific studies, there is rarely a “eureka” moment that suddenly changes everything, but rather several small steps forward to either prove or disprove a theory. The same is true in archeology. The public may read the big headlines or get swept up in a massive announcement, but those are usually the end result of years, even decades of work. For scientists, however, this discovery is like a kitten discovering catnip.

The Curiosity Rover will continue to send back its results, and the next NASA rover planned for Mars in 2020, or the upcoming ESA ExoMars rover landing in 2021 will uncover even more organic materials.

“Are there signs of life on Mars?” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “We don’t know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.”

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