Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Sci-tech | By Eric Barnett

NASA almost found life on Mars

NASA almost found life on Mars

Since it landed at the Gale Crater in 2012, the Curiosity Rover has been sniffing out methane in the area.

The rover has been seeing seasonal changes in the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

The scientists behind experiments conducted by the Curiosity rover are today reporting two results that make the Red Planet's story even more interesting. Methane is also quickly broken down by ultraviolet radiation, so any of the gas discovered on Mars was probably released recently.

"We have greatly expanded our search for organic compounds, which is fundamental in the search for life", said Paul Mahaffy, study author and director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "It tells us that this ancient environment on Mars could have supported life", NASA biochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode said.

"All sorts of big questions could be answered by finding life on Mars or by not finding life on Mars", says David Weintraub, a professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and author of the book "Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go".

Maybe even billions of years - the Gale crater, named after Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, is up to 3.8 billion years old, and may have once held a lake.

Some of the new science instruments included on the next Mars rover include an X-ray spectrometer, ultraviolet laser, excited rings of carbon atoms, and a ground-penetrating radar that will allow the space agency to look under the surface of Mars up to 30 feet deep depending on terrain.

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That may be because numerous compounds, such as thiophene, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide, had sulfur atoms in their molecular structure - which would strengthen the relatively fragile organic molecules, allowing them to survive the radiation bombarding the planet's surface for so long. This could be a sign that there is a reservoir of methane somewhere under the surface that was generated by chemical reactions involving water or, possibly, by Martian microbes.

They don't exactly roll off the tongue, but researchers believe that these are fragments of larger molecules that were present on Mars billions of years ago.

Potential contaminants were analyzed and accounted for, so the results are the most conclusive yet. On Earth, such carbon-rich compounds are one of life's cornerstones.

Seasonal changes in methane at Gale Crater. The methane, he and his colleagues speculate, could come from aquifers melting during the Martian summer, releasing water that flows over rocks deep underground to produce fresh gas. The seasonal variation provides an important clue for determining the origin of martian methane.

Inorganic carbon is carbon that is found in compounds that are completely unlike biological molecules. In a second paper, a group of scientists described methane in the atmosphere of the red planet has been varying. We don't know if that methane is ancient, we don't know if it's modern. And NASA's scheduled Mars 2020 rover is slated to package soil samples for future missions to pick up and return to Earth. "So way under the ground this methane is trapped".

"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".

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