The search for organic molecules actually began on Mars in 1976 via Viking 1 and II, so the finding of them by Curiosity is an achievement a long time coming. But they aren't proof of life on Mars, or even necessarily strong evidence that there's anything living, or anything that used to be alive, out there. This is the matter-chemically characterized as combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements routinely found in biology like sulphur and oxygen-often associated with life.
Spikes and plumes of methane in Mars's thin atmosphere have been detected by several missions over more than two decades, but they have been frustrating to study, said Christopher Webster, who led the methane study.
NASA's Curiosity rover has discovered chemicals the agency considers to be the "building blocks" of basic life forms in soil found on Mars, the aerospace agency announced Thursday.
Big news from Mars today: NASA's Curiosity rover found ancient traces of organic matter embedded in Martian rocks and detected a "seasonal variation" in atmospheric methane on the Red Planet - an annual pulse of the gas, nearly as if something out there were breathing. The drill that Curiosity is using is literally just scratching the surface; it goes 5cm deep.More news: 3 astronauts blast off to International Space Station
Some of the new science instruments included on the next Mars rover include an X-ray spectrometer, ultraviolet laser, excited rings of carbon atoms, and a ground-penetrating radar that will allow the space agency to look under the surface of Mars up to 30 feet deep depending on terrain.
"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability".
Regardless, the detection is a technical achievement, said Williford, because it demonstrates that organic molecules can persist near Mars's surface for billions of years. "Organic matter" in this context doesn't mean anything we'd recognize from our lives on Earth.
Another mission, Mars InSight, is heading to Mars right now to study the geological life of the planet.More news: Israeli intelligence foils plot to assassinate Netanyahu, Jerusalem Mayor, other officials
In addition to organic chemicals, NASA revealed that Curiosity discovered seasonal atmospheric methane variations on the Red Planet. On Mars, where we only have a few molecules from a remote probe, this stuff is light years away from being conclusive. Researchers said they can't rule out a biological source.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said that these discoveries should be viewed as Mars "telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life". Organic material can be produced without life. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system.
"All life as we know it is based on organic molecules", Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist at Goddard, said during the press announcement, suggesting that, while this evidence doesn't definitely prove there is life on Mars, the signs are there to investigate further.
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That Mars possesses organic molecules is not surprising. Or reactions driven by Mars's ancient volcanoes could have formed the compounds from primordial carbon dioxide. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter", Eigenbrode continued. It follows the discovery of organic molecules in 2014 that appeared to be much more sparse. "If you can do this on Mars, imagine what you can do with analytical facilities available to us on Earth", he says.