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Breakthrough in search for Martian life as Curiosity finds organic matter and seasonal methane
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Breakthrough in search for Martian life as Curiosity finds organic matter and seasonal methane

NASA's Curiosity rover has uncovered the best evidence yet that life may have once existed on Mars.

In two separate studies on data collected by the Mars rover over the last few years, scientists identified an abundant source of organic matter in an ancient lakebed, and traced some of the planet's atmospheric methane to its roots.

The groundbreaking results will help to guide the search for microbial life and improve our understanding of seasonal processes on Mars. 

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Above, the Curiosity Mars rover vehicle can be seen at the site from which it drilled into a rock target called 'Buckskin' on lower Mount Sharp, where it found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet

Above, the Curiosity Mars rover vehicle can be seen at the site from which it drilled into a rock target called 'Buckskin' on lower Mount Sharp, where it found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet

'The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up,' said Curiosity's project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA revealed details on the latest findings in a press conference Thursday afternoon.

While the announcement may not be the detection of life itself, the finding address factors that are 'fundamental to our search for life,' explained Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, during the conference.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, as well nitrogen and other elements. 

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The molecules identified in the Curiosity samples were found in rocks from an ancient lakebed, explained lead author and astrobiologist Dr Jennifer L. Eigenbrode.

The rover extracted and heated samples from Mojave and Confidence Hills in the Gale Crater – both of which are known to contain mudstones dating back roughly three billion years.

This revealed the presence molecules that resembled organic-rich sedimentary rock found on Earth, according to the team, including thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene. 

'Those organic molecules could have come from life,' Eigenbrode said, 'but we don't know that there was ever life on Mars. 

'So those specific molecules are not evidence of life.' 

Instead, the researcher explained, these molecules could be traced to non-life sources, such as meteorites. 

The rover used its drill to make holes in the Martian surface (close up, right) then the OLES SAM detected ancient hydrocarbons in the 'Mojave 2' target rock

Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite measured small organic molecules from the mudstone samples. Some of these contain sulfur, which could have helped in their preservation. Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen

Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite measured small organic molecules from the mudstone samples. Some of these contain sulfur, which could have helped in their preservation. Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen

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'What were looking at here are a lot of layers that were put down in an ancient lake,' Eigenbrode said during the press conference, addressing the yet-unknown origins of the newly detected organic matter.

'That lake had been there for a long periods of time - hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years. 

'Organic materials can come into that lake through rivers, they can be windblown in, or they can be formed in the lake itself through biology,' Eigenbrode continued.

The Curiosity analysis revealed the presence molecules that resembled organic-rich sedimentary rock found on Earth. The organic compound Kerogen is illustrated

The Curiosity analysis revealed the presence molecules that resembled organic-rich sedimentary rock found on Earth. The organic compound Kerogen is illustrated

'One source could be meteorites infalling, or rock forming processes that form organics on their own. 

'We don't have enough information from the observations we've made to know what the source is, and how it got in there.'

According to the researcher, these molecules detected on Mars differ by a single carbon sidechain from those seen on Earth, suggesting they may be fragments of larger organic molecules.

The rock samples were analyzed by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which heated them to more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules as gases. 

It then identified them using a mass spectrometer.

While the latest discovery may not mean Curiosity has found evidence of ancient life on Mars just yet, it is a promising step forward ahead of missions that plan to dig even deeper into the Martian soil and a 'good sign' of the planet's ancient habitability, the researchers say.

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The molecules identified in the Curiosity samples were found in rocks from an ancient lakebed, explained lead author and astrobiologist Dr Jennifer L. Eigenbrode Gale Crater was the site of an ancient lake on Mars, NASA says. A simulation is shown

The molecules identified in the Curiosity samples were found in rocks from an ancient lakebed, explained lead author and astrobiologist Dr Jennifer L. Eigenbrode

The rover extracted and heated samples from Mojave and Confidence Hills in the Gale Crater – both of which are known to contain mudstones dating back roughly three billion years. A panorama of Gale Crater is pictured 

The rover extracted and heated samples from Mojave and Confidence Hills in the Gale Crater – both of which are known to contain mudstones dating back roughly three billion years. A panorama of Gale Crater is pictured 

'The new findings reinforce our conclusions that there is Marian organic matter in the ancient sediments and they tell us about how the organic molecules are preserved in the rocks,' Eigenbrode, lead author of one of the studies, told MailOnline in an email.

'The detection of organic matter in rocks from an ancient habitable environment on Mars bode well for the future search for life on Mars.'

'Organic matter could come from life, but the presence of organics is not evidence for life since organics can also come from non-life processes,' Eigenbrode told MailOnline.

'We found organic matter in rocks exposed at the surface where the environment is very harsh and tends to break down organic matter.

'Finding it in this harsh place means we might find better preserved organic matter in other places, particularly where it has not been exposed to lots of radiation.

The team looked at data from three Martian years (55 Earth months), revealing strong fluctuations that appear to follow a seasonal cycle. The authors say large amounts of methane is likely coming from beneath the surface, trapped in water-based crystals 

The team looked at data from three Martian years (55 Earth months), revealing strong fluctuations that appear to follow a seasonal cycle. The authors say large amounts of methane is likely coming from beneath the surface, trapped in water-based crystals 

Mars’ methane, the researchers found, ranges from about 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion, peaking near the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere. These fluctuations are illustrated above 

Mars' methane, the researchers found, ranges from about 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion, peaking near the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere. These fluctuations are illustrated above 

'To do this, we might drill deep, which is what ESA's ExoMars rover plans to do,' Eigenbrode continued.

'Alternatively, we could look for outcrops that have been recently excavated by erosion or meteorite impacts. 

'Perhaps NASA's Mars2020 mission will have this opportunity and will cache samples for return to Earth.'

In addition to the discovery of organic materials, the Curiosity data also reveal new clues on the origins of Mars' mysterious methane. 

While methane is known to exist in the scant Martian atmosphere, just how it got there has remained a mystery.

On Earth, this compound is linked to biological sources – meaning it's closely tied to the presence of life.

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But on Mars, scientists have proposed numerous other abiotic processes that could have given rise to the methane in question.

In the second of the two new studies, researchers used measurements of atmospheric methane captured by the Curiosity rover to better understand its origins.  

Curiosity detected  methane with SAM's Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), illustrated above 

Curiosity detected methane with SAM's Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS), illustrated above 

The team looked at data from three Martian years (55 Earth months), revealing strong fluctuations that appear to follow a seasonal cycle.

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

'This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal 'breathing.'

Mars' methane, the researchers found, ranges from about 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion, peaking near the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere.

The rock samples were analyzed by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which heated them to more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules as gases

The rock samples were analyzed by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which heated them to more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules as gases

WHAT IS THE MARS CURIOSITY ROVER AND WHAT HAS IT ACHIEVED SO FAR?

The Mars Curiosity rover was initially launched from Cape Canaveral, an American Air Force station in Florida on November 26, 2011. 

After embarking on a 350 million mile (560 million km) journey, the £1.8 billion ($2.5 billion) research vehicle touched down only 1.5 miles (2.4 km) away from the earmarked landing spot.

After a successful landing on August 6th, 2012, the rover has travelled about 11 miles (18 km). 

It was launched on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft and the rover constituted 23 per cent of the mass of the total mission. 

With 80 kg (180 lb) of scientific instruments on board, the rover weighs a total of 899 kg (1,982 lb) and is powered by a plutonium fuel source. 

The rover is 2.9 metres (9.5 ft) long by 2.7 metres (8.9 ft) wide by 2.2 metres (7.2 ft) in height. 

The Mars curiosity rover was initially intended to be a two-year mission to gather information to help answer if the planet could support life, has liquid water, study the climate and the geology of Mars an has since been active for more than 2,000  days

The Mars curiosity rover was initially intended to be a two-year mission to gather information to help answer if the planet could support life, has liquid water, study the climate and the geology of Mars an has since been active for more than 2,000  days

The rover was initially intended to be a two-year mission to gather information to help answer if the planet could support life, has liquid water, study the climate and the geology of Mars.  

Due to its success, the mission has been extended indefinitely and has now been active for over 2,000 days.

The rover has several scientific instruments on board, including the mastcam which consists of two cameras and can take high-resolution images and videos in real colour. 

So far on the journey of the car-sized robot it has encountered an ancient streambed where liquid water used to flow, not long after it also discovered that billions of years ago, a nearby area known as Yellowknife Bay was part of a lake that could have supported microbial life.

After ruling out several possible sources, the authors say the data suggest large amounts of Martian methane is likely coming from beneath the surface, trapped in water-based crystals called clathrates.

This gas is then released in varying amounts as the temperature changes across the seasons, rising through the cracks and fissures in the ground to escape to the atmosphere. 

According to NASA, the methane could have been generated through the water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane - but, the scientists also say they cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins.  

Each new piece of the puzzle is a crucial step in the search for ancient Martian life.

'Are there signs of life on Mars?' said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters. 

'We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.'

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