The "building blocks" for life have been discovered in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars, NASA scientists announced Thursday.
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 Gale Crater samples showed organic molecules in concentrations of over 10 parts per million - very similar to those found in ancient meteorites that originated from Mars billions of years ago and 100 fold greater than previous samples taken on the Martian surface.
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This engineering marvel, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, has revolutionized our understanding of the red planet. Curiosity has detected large organic molecules inside ancient Martian rocks, as well as methane cycles now active on the planet. Again, without having a Mars rock in a laboratory on Earth for more detailed study, we can not say what processes formed these molecules and whether they formed on Mars or somewhere in the interstellar medium and were transported in the form of carbonaceous meteorites.
In two studies published today (June 7) in the journal Science, researchers from NASA reported the largest amount of organic matter on Mars ever obtained by the Curiosity rover. That's because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with radiation that can break down organic compounds.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the space said that with these findings "Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life".
"A lot of us were left scratching our heads trying to figure out, "What does this mean?' Then we turned around and realised, 'Let's just go and find more", said Dr Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. But it has found the ingredients for life on Mars. This could be a sign that there is a reservoir of methane somewhere under the surface that was generated by chemical reactions involving water or, possibly, by Martian microbes.
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The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake.
NASA says the Mars 2020 rover is made up of about 85 percent of heritage hardware from the Curiosity.
Curiosity found seasonal changes in atmospheric methane on Mars. The methane, he and his colleagues speculate, could come from aquifers melting during the Martian summer, releasing water that flows over rocks deep underground to produce fresh gas. The first evidence is preserved in Martian rocks and suggests the planet could have supported ancient life. Such incremental progress is the whole point of NASA's Mars exploration program, Freissinet notes. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about".
The press conference is set to kick off at 2 p.m. EDT today, and while NASA obviously hasn't revealed exactly what it has in store, there's a few things we do know.
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"We've been able to rule out some of the more simple or accepted ideas of Mars's methane", Dr Webster said.