NASA’s Curiosity rover finds organic matter on Mars

Two rock samples taken by NASA's Curiosity rover were found to contain organic molecules.

They were found in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere, according to NASA.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbour and still might.

Nasa is now revealing the latest findings of its Curiosity Rover at a press conference.

Both studies resulting from the mission were published online today in the journal Science. More powerful spacecraft are needed to prove whether life ever existed on Mars.

"We found organic molecules in rocks from an ancient lakebed", said Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist and astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Over the intervening years, fluid flowing thought it would have initiated chemical reactions that could have destroyed the organic matter - the material discovered may in fact be fragments from bigger molecules. This latest discovery adds evidence that Mars may have been capable of supporting life in its ancient past, though there's still no evidence that life had actually existed on the Red Planet.

"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).

"The results convincingly show the long-awaited detection of organic compounds on Mars".

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The discoveries were found using the USA space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

These molecules appeared to come from a much larger molecule, and contained high levels of sulfur.

Over the years, scientists have amassed a number of clues that can help answer the question of Mars' habitability, including evidence of liquid water.

A NASA robot has detected complex organic matter on Mars in a "significant breakthrough" in the hunt for life on the planet. They are fairly certain that it comes from melting water-based crystals, called clathrates, buried just below the planet's surface.

Scientists hope to further the search for signs of life on Mars with the European and Russian rover, ExoMars, scheduled to land in 2021. Before, researchers couldn't understand why the little bit of methane detected in the Martian atmosphere varied.

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.

NASA also has another rover in the works with its Mars 2020 mission, which plans to drill cores and set them aside for a possible future pickup and return to Earth. That's not to say there are no non-biological sources, but on our world they're swamped by cow farts and belching bacteria. The compounds discovered on Mars could have been produced by living things, or they could have been food for those living things. "We also don't know if that methane was created from rock chemistry or it was created by microbes".

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