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.
The shocking discovery of molecules preserved in ancient bedrock suggest conditions on the Red Planet may once have housed life.
But finding a trove of organic molecules on Mars is a big breakthrough for astrobiology, as organic molecules could be food for microbes, even if it doesn't represent life itself. Yet over the course of 55 Earth months (three Martian years), Webster and his team were able to use SAM to detect tiny, regular patterns in which methane-natural gas-increased from 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion at the end of northern Mars' summer.
The other paper in Science reported on new details in the search for the source of methane on Mars, which has wide spikes and dips according to the seasons. The problem was that these organic molecules contained an unusual atom: chlorine. There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff.
"When you work with something as insane as a rover on Mars, with the most complex instrument ever sent to space, it seems like we're doing what may have been perceived earlier as impossible", says lead author Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biogeochemist at NASA Goddard. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.
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It's impossible to say whether ancient life explains the Martian organics, however.
This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it.
NASA says the Mars 2020 rover is made up of about 85 percent of heritage hardware from the Curiosity.
The results revealed a wealth of organics, Eigenbrode said - including some that had carbons linked in ring structures (such as benzenes) and others that include carbon chains (such as propane).
"We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track"'.
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"This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity". Certainly, there are geological processes that could make methane levels change over the Martian year, she said.
NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover drilled this hole to collect sample material from a rock target called "Buckskin" on July 30, 2015, during the 1060th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars. Instead, SAM detected fragments of much larger molecules that had been broken up during the high-temperature heating experiment. This is close to the amount observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times greater than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars' surface. After drilling, Curiosity heats the rock samples, releasing the compounds.
"People have been wondering about whether there might be life on Mars forever and finally ... they've done all the tests they've modified everything to be able to show that in fact there's organic matter on Mars". Hell comes from Mars, NASA, and it's only been two years since we cleaned up the last incident of Mars Hell.
The source is still unclear, but it may be stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates, researchers said.
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