Sci-tech

NASA almost found life on Mars

NASA almost found life on Mars

'I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet'.

The unmanned Curiosity rover discovered the matter from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists have revealed.

The new findings - of "tough" organic molecules in 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere - appear in the June 8 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Science.

The discovery proves that while Mars is inhospitable today, it previously allowed for "liquid water" to pool, meaning a water lake inside Mars' Gale Crater could have once supported life, NASA said in an announcement on Tuesday. Curiosity has detected large organic molecules inside ancient Martian rocks, as well as methane cycles now active on the planet.

Referring to the findings regarding organic compounds and methane, Webster said, "They hint at an earlier time on Mars when water was present and the existence of primitive life forms was possible".

The organic-rich sample came from the bottom of what used to be a massive lake inside Gale Crater billions of years ago.

"The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars", she said.

Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lakebed have yielded complex organic molecules that look strikingly similar to the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth.

The other set of results announced today deals with the mysterious case of Mars's methane. The Wikipedia article on "organic matter" makes the point: "Organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don't involve life".

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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. Organic material can be produced without life. "We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track".

The samples were heated to 500C in Curiosity's oven to release any organic molecules, the kind that don't vaporise easily.

"All sorts of big questions could be answered by finding life on Mars or by not finding life on Mars", says David Weintraub, a professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and author of the book "Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go".

Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years. But the origin of methane on Mars has always been debated.

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

Methane gas can be a byproduct of life on Earth, but there are geological processes that can produce it, too. She said the discoveries break down some of the strongest arguments put forward by life-on-Mars skeptics, herself included. Once at the surface, the methane sticks to dirt and rocks, with more released into the atmosphere when it's hotter. The methane concentrations peak near the end of the northern hemisphere's summer, then dwindle in the winter.

In December 2012, the rover's two-year mission was extended indefinitely. They therefore suggest that methane could be trapped at depth, gradually seeping to the surface.

Ever since the twin Viking landers touched down in 1976, scientists have hunted for signs of organic molecules on Mars.


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