Monday, 25 June, 2018

Rocks on Mars still harbour organic molecules after billions of years

Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars What has Nasa found on Mars? Alien life? Watch announcement livestream here
Doris Mccormick | 08 June, 2018, 09:29

These organic compounds, a requirement for life as it's known on Earth, were found in 3-billion-year-old rocks deposited on the floor of Gale Crater. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes.

The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis.

NASA officials discuss the findings of the Mars Curiosity rover.

"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode. Mars2020 will shed light on the organic molecules-and prepare a sample that some future mission could bring back to Earth. So mission scientists sent Curiosity on a four-mile journey to the base of Mount Sharp in hopes of finding more conclusive evidence buried in old lake sediments. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade.

The team picked up a welter of closely related organic signals reflecting dozens or hundreds of types of small carbon molecules, probably short rings and strands called aromatics and aliphatics, respectively. Still, this discovery is very encouraging in the context of what we know about Mars in the distant past.

While we know that Mars was habitable in the past, the case demonstrates just how hard it will be to ever prove the existence of past life on its surface.

Inorganic carbon is carbon that is found in compounds that are completely unlike biological molecules.

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In addition to organic chemicals, NASA revealed that Curiosity discovered seasonal atmospheric methane variations on the Red Planet. The organic molecules were found in Gale Crater - believed to once contain a shallow lake the size of Florida's Lake Okeechobee. "It's fascinating what they mean for understanding life in our universe". This doesn't constitute proof that life existed on Mars, though. Nearly exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish.

That may be because numerous compounds, such as thiophene, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide, had sulfur atoms in their molecular structure - which would strengthen the relatively fragile organic molecules, allowing them to survive the radiation bombarding the planet's surface for so long. Yet when NASA's twin Viking probes landed on Mars in 1976, their studies suggested something startling: Martian soil, it seemed, contained less carbon than lifeless lunar rocks. But methane can also be produced by normal geologic processes. "But it doesn't tell us that life was there".

"Because we see these coming off of the sample at high temperatures, what they're really telling us is that they're part of something larger, a macromolecule", she said. I'll tell you what comes from Mars: Hell.

The new results represent the longest systematic record of atmospheric methane, with measurements taken regularly over five years.

"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space", said Jen Eigenbrode, a study author and research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the incredible consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.

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