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'Building blocks of life' found on Mars

08 June 2018

Big news from Mars today: NASA's Curiosity rover found ancient traces of organic matter embedded in Martian rocks and detected a "seasonal variation" in atmospheric methane on the Red Planet - an annual pulse of the gas, nearly as if something out there were breathing.

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, slowly making its way up the side of a towering mountain of sedimentary rock at the center of its Gale Crater landing site, has found fresh evidence for the red planet's past - and possibly present - habitability, scientists reported Thursday.

The team estimates the ancient sediments, where the complex organic molecules were found, were actually the remains of a vast lakebed that existed more than 3bn years ago.

Naturally, the usual UFO fans have jumped on this and are suggesting it's probably aliens - or at least some sign of life on the Red Planet.

"The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars", said Inge Loes ten Kate, a Utrecht University scientist in an accompanying article in Science.

Curiosity has been drilling since 2013.

Some geologists devote their careers to seeking organic inclusions in Earth rocks, hoping to find ancient fossils of terrestrial life.

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Furthermore, Pontefract says, ExoMars and NASA's Mars 2020 mission will use tools that take a different approach to analyze organics. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine. Yet when NASA's twin Viking probes landed on Mars in 1976, their studies suggested something startling: Martian soil, it seemed, contained less carbon than lifeless lunar rocks.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP. If there was, then that life would have left behind organic molecules when it decayed. She pointed out that the surface of Mars is regularly exposed to space radiation, and that radiation and chemicals typically break down organic matter.

It's the first time "something repeatable in the methane story" has been observed on Mars, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said. But they aren't proof of life on Mars, or even necessarily strong evidence that there's anything living, or anything that used to be alive, out there.

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.

"These clathrates lock the methane inside a water-ice crystal structure and are incredibly stable for millions of years until environmental conditions change and suddenly they can release that gas", says Duffy.

Three Mars years' worth of data shows that along with spikes in methane, levels swing between 0.24 and 0.65 parts per billion, peaking in the northern hemisphere summer. Occasionally, rocks can make produce them on their own through geological processes, and meteorites can also bring them from neighboring planets. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade.

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, though they can also be produced by chemical reactions unrelated to life. "So way under the ground this methane is trapped". Once at the surface, the methane sticks to dirt and rocks, with more released into the atmosphere when it's hotter. Perhaps, some researchers speculated, Mars's remaining organics-and thus any signs of past or present life-were locked away in its subsurface depths.

'Building blocks of life' found on Mars