Mars had ingredients needed for life

Mars Curiosity rover selfie

Two recent discoveries from Mars - one from the surface and one in the atmosphere - are the latest evidence that the Red Planet could have once supported life, according to NASA.

Three different types of organic molecules were discovered when the rover dug just 2 inches (5 cm) into roughly 3.5 billion-year-old mudstone, a fine-grained sedimentary rock, at Gale crater, apparently the site of a large lake when ancient Mars was warmer and wetter than the desolate planet it is today.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, though they can also be produced by chemical reactions unrelated to life. However, "we're in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life", said Jennifer Eigenbrode, a NASA biogeochemist and lead author of a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

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Curiosity and its onboard science lab are now investigating the Gale Crater on Mars, that formed more than 4 billion years ago when an object crashed into the surface. "Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes". "I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet". NASA earlier this week announced that the Curiosity rover had started analysing drilled samples on Mars in one of its onboard labs for the first time in more than a year. About 95 percent of the methane in Earth's atmosphere is produced from biological activity, though the scientists said it is too soon to know if the Martian methane also is related to life. "Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper". He is a science team member and mobility specialist for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover that has been exploring Mars since August 2012.

The amount of methane peaked at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere at about 2.7 times the level of the lowest seasonal amount. This is significant because most methane on Earth, for instance, comes from biological sources. "We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track".

These results also inform scientists' decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars. NASA calls Curiosity the "largest and most capable" rover ever to make contact with Mars.

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