Science

NASA's Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars

NASA's Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars”

Launched in 2011, Curiosity was created to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Occasionally, rocks can make produce them on their own through geological processes, and meteorites can also bring them from neighboring planets.

On Earth, methane is mainly produced by biological processes.

Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and it could have supported a climate that sustained lakes on Mars. It has been tacking across the floor of Gale Crater on Mars for five years, returning stunning images of Martian landscapes, with vistas opening up to show rocky outcrops seamed with mineral veins.

Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater. Over time, a picture of the ebb and flow of methane on Mars has emerged.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", said lead author of the second paper Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I'll tell you what comes from Mars: Hell.

For his part Webster says he has no preference among the different explanations, and believes it will take a long time before any final conclusions can be drawn.

"The idea that best fits our data is the idea of sub-surface storage", he said.

"We can not rule out its creation from biological activity ..."

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

"As temperatures change from winter to summer, the methane changes greatly because as the surface gets a little bit warmer it releases a lot more methane", he said.

The organic molecules, discovered in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, contain carbon and hydrogen, and might also include oxygen and nitrogen. While organics were discovered by the rover earlier, the age and variety of the newly analyzed samples strengthen the case for a habitable environment in the past. The scientists took questions from the public as they revealed increasingly more information about Curiosity's latest developments.

"There's three possible sources for the organic material", said astrobiologist Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

They hit pay dirt about 6.5 kilometres away, at two sites near Pahrump Hills at the base of Mt Sharp.

Curiosity dug up samples at Mojave and Confidence Hills near Pahrump Hills.

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

If Viking was phase one of our search for life on Mars, and the methodical quest for clues of habitability that followed was phase two, says Grinspoon, "this is the successful culmination of phase two".

A seasonal change in methane levels is exciting, he said, because 95 percent of the methane observed on Earth is the result of biology.

The public can send questions on social media and the event will air live on NASA Television and the agency's website. That could even be happening beneath the surface now, the researchers said.

While the Curiosity Rover only scrapes off the top 5 centimetres, ExoMars's MOMA lab which is planned to be launched in 2020 will go down 2 metres.

In addition, NASA recorded methane spikes on the planet Mars, in a form that is repeating rather than random.

So, just where did the methane come from in the first place?



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