Science

NASA finds the building blocks of life on Mars

NASA finds the building blocks of life on Mars

After years of searching Mars for any signs that it might sustain life or might have sustained life, NASA has finally found organic matter on the Red Planet.

A NASA rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of Mars and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane in findings released on Thursday that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbor may have harbored life.

The material was discovered by the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been collecting data on the Red Planet since August 2012.

The rover has also discovered traces of methane in Mars' atmosphere, which researchers reported in an additional paper in Science.

"This is a very exciting discovery, but we cannot confirm the origin of these molecules yet, it could be a previous life test, but they could also belong to a meteorite or other sources", said a cautious Mahaffy in the same presentation. Should Nasa not make it beforehand, Europe's ExoMars rover due to land on the planet in 2020 will drill deeper than Curiosity can.

Although the media and the scientific community had speculated that NASA would today announce clear evidence of the existence of life on Mars, today's message means only one more step in that direction.




In a second paper in Science, NASA's Christopher Webster and an global team describe how they have used instruments on-board Curiosity to measure a seasonal variation in methane levels in the Martian atmosphere. The analysis found organic and chemical molecules similar to that are found on the Earth. That's because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with radiation that can break down organic compounds. Although there was no way to directly date the organic material found within the rocks, it has to be at least as old as the rocks themselves. Ken Williford, an astrobiologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Washington Post "it makes us more confident that if biomarkers are there we might find them".

The two studies appear in the journal Science.

Again, while water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, scientists can not rule out the possibility that the gas was produced by biological processes. The good news is that the findings pave the way and further direct the Martian quest for life.

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground.

As with methane, there could well be nonbiological explanations for the presence of carbon-containing molecules on Mars, such as geologic processes or impacts by asteroids, comet, meteors and interplanetary dust. "We need to go to places that we think are the most likely places to find it". "Are there signs of life on Mars?" said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters.