Could this be a sign of life on Mars?

09 Junio, 2018, 10:21 | Author: Enrique Watson
  • Curiosity tests a new way to drill on Mars

All of which will be taken into account when several more Mars lander projects head for the Red Planet in the next two years.

The unmanned Curiosity rover has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variations of methane on Mars, indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water.

On Thursday, the agency revealed its Curiosity rover, which has been scouring the Martian surface since 2012, has found organic molecules preserved in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks on the planet.

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. The molecules contain carbon and hydrogen (two of the so-called building blocks of life) and could potentially include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements, leaving open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbor and might still exist there.

The Curiosity rover has lasted three times as long as it was meant to and is still going, which helped with the study of seasonal methane cycles. At a few dozen parts per million, the detected levels are 100 times higher than previous finds, but scientists still can not say whether they have origins in biology or geology.

To identify organic material in the Mars' soil, the Curiosity rover drilled into sedimentary rocks, known as mudstone, from four areas in Gale Crater.

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. And if life does exist elsewhere, it may be very different or even form differently from how we understand life on Earth.

Almost all of Earth's methane is biologically produced, so when methane was first detected in Mars' atmosphere in 2003 it immediately generated excitement - although its origins remain unknown.

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"The thing about the chlorinated molecules is that it's not what you'd typically find in natural samples, and so we weren't sure what the significance was at the time", Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, lead author of one of the papers, said in a briefing.

"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space".

By themselves, the new results aren't evidence for ancient life on Mars; non-living processes could have yielded identical molecules.

Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over 4 1/2 Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years. Gases released from the samples at temperatures over 500 degrees Celsius were carried by the helium flow directly into a mass spectrometer.

She said: "Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules". These organic molecules were found at the bottom of what once was a lake bed, in rocks 3 billion years old.

The methane study, spearheaded by JPL atmospheric scientist Chris Webster, is also intriguing for astrobiologists. In fact, thiophenes are pretty simple molecules that are just a 5-sided carbon ring, but with a sulfur molecule replacing a carbon atom.

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

Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and it could have supported a climate that sustained lakes on Mars.

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