Curiosity Didn't Find Life on Mars - But These 2 Future Rovers Might

Curiosity Didn't Find Life on Mars - But These 2 Future Rovers Might

That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might.

The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Thursday announced that its Curiosity rover has found complex organic matter preserved in ancient sediments that formed a vast lake bed on lower Mount Sharp onMars more than three billion years ago. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) arm of the rover found seasonal fluctuations of methane gas in the planet's atmosphere as well as organic material from shallow-soil sample analyses from Gale crater, which was a lake some 3 billion years ago.

While the new results are far from a confirmation of life on Mars, scientists believe they support earlier hypotheses that the Red Planet was once clement and habitable for microbial life.

Thanks to the extended time period that Curiosity has spent on Mars it has actually been able to detect seasonal variations in how the methane is produced, and where it settles throughout the year. "Short of taking a picture of a fossil in a rock on Mars, [finding life there] is extremely hard to do scientifically", says Chris Webster, a chemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the methane study.

The latest data shows huge swings in the level of methane in the atmosphere as the seasons change, and new types of organic molecules capable of preserving life just beneath its surface.

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"If there are no organics, we can pretty much forget about there being life or ever having been life on Mars", says Dr. Weintraub. In the ashes that remained they found thiophenes-relatively small and simple ringlike molecules containing both carbon and sulfur. Certainly, there are geological processes that could make methane levels change over the Martian year, she said.

Still, "we're in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life", NASA biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode said in a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science. If researchers saw this signature on Mars, the case for life would get stronger. "There are locations, especially subsurface, where organic molecules are well-preserved".

There's enough ambient carbon and hydrogen in the solar system that they react to form basic organic compounds pretty frequently, even without biology involved, ten Kate said. Curiosity can only drill a few centimeters into Martian rocks, and it lacks the advanced tools necessary to search for more complex markers of life. The methane concentrations peak near the end of the northern hemisphere's summer, then dwindle in the winter. There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff. Pictured, a computer-generated view depicting part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light.

"This is an important finding", says Samuel Kounaves, a Tufts University chemist and former lead scientist for NASA's Phoenix Mars lander. That's a harder question to address scientifically, but I think that we need to give the search for life on Mars due diligence.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference.

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