'Mars Could Have Supported Life': NASA Suggests Red Planet Was Habitable

NASA news conference Mars announcement

NASA news conference Mars announcement

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

A NASA robot has detected more building blocks for life on Mars - the most complex organic matter yet - from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists said Thursday.

NASA released a statement this week announcing the space agency would be holding a live discussion on new science results from its Mars Curiosity rover.

A Nasa rover has detected a bonanza of organic compounds on the surface of the planet and seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane, in findings that mark some of the strongest evidence ever that Earth's neighbour may have harboured life.

A NASA robot has detected complex organic matter on Mars in a "significant breakthrough" in the hunt for life on the planet.

On top of that, after keeping close tabs on methane levels in the Martian atmosphere, scientists have finally confirmed something weird is definitely going on, and they think they know what's causing it. "As NASA put it, Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins".

Mars's Gale Crater, where Curiosity has been trolling around for the past six years, is a particularly interesting place to look for those molecules.

That may be because numerous compounds, such as thiophene, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide, had sulfur atoms in their molecular structure - which would strengthen the relatively fragile organic molecules, allowing them to survive the radiation bombarding the planet's surface for so long. However, whether such life ever existed on Mars remains the big unknown.

Both discoveries emerged from Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, a miniaturized chemistry lab and oven that roasts dollops of air, rock and soil to sniff out each sample's constituent molecules.

"[Curiosity's] molecular observations do not clearly reveal the source of the organic matter in [Gale Crater]".

"Those two features are very important for the preservation of organic material in rock on Earth", Dr Eigenbrode said.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference. If there was, then that life would have left behind organic molecules when it decayed. This could be a sign that there is a reservoir of methane somewhere under the surface that was generated by chemical reactions involving water or, possibly, by Martian microbes.

"They could be changed from something like we've observed at the base of the mountain into methane that eventually makes its way back in to the atmosphere", she said.

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. Using SAM, Webster and his colleagues have found a persistent background level of methane in the atmosphere above Gale Crater over the last five years of about 0.4 part per billion-a scarcely detectable trace, to be sure, but enough to pique astrobiologists' interest.

Methane gas can be a byproduct of life on Earth, but there are geological processes that can produce it, too.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it", Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said.

College students will get a chance this week to learn about one type of condition on Mars during a simulation at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton. This doesn't constitute proof that life existed on Mars, though.

Recommended News

We are pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news.
Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper.
Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.