Organic Matter Found On Mars, Nasa Announces

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NASA's Curiosity rover has uncovered signatures of an environment on the red plant that may once have been habitable.

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.

The new evidence comes from a pair of rocks.

A self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.

The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake.

Powder from the rocks went into an analyzer on the rover called SAM that can determine what they were made of.

Potential contaminants were analyzed and accounted for, so the results are the most conclusive yet.

"We've considered three possible sources for the organics: geology, meteorites and biology", she said.

As with methane, there could well be non-biological explanations for the presence of carbon-containing molecules on Mars, such as geologic processes or impacts by asteroids, comet, meteors and interplanetary dust. Still, this discovery is very encouraging in the context of what we know about Mars in the distant past. "What they show is that organics were present early on in Mars". The 96-mile crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale, was most likely formed by meteor impact between 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

The space agency has not divulged specific information about what it may have found, leaving many to wonder what intriguing details will be learned about the red planet. Those molecules are familiar building blocks for life here on Earth, including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

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She isn't ruling out that possibility, however.

The discoveries, reported today in two papers in the journal Science, while not evidence of life, provide more tantalising clues about what's happening on Mars, for future missions to investigate.

Previously, it was an open question whether signs of life might be preserved on the now-harsh Martian surface.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. The Martian surface is bombarded with radiation that can degrade organic compounds, explains Eigenbrode. This might not sound like much carbon - but finding it at all is a big deal, since organic material could be traces of decayed living matter. Close up, the veins have the appearance and chemistry of material that has been produced by reaction of water with the rocks, at a time when water was stable at the surface for extended periods of time.

And in a separate report in Science set to publish Friday, scientists revealed the Curiosity rover has also detected methane on the Martian surface in concentrations that vary with the seasons. But the organic molecules identified by the car-sized rover then were too few and ambiguous.

Christopher Webster, an atmospheric science research fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said it is possible existing microbes are contributing to the Martian atmospheric methane.

He and his colleagues think the methane is coming from underground.

Webster says the rover results don't say whether the methane being released has been trapped for eons or is being generated now.

On Earth, we have a process by which underwater volcanoes interact with rock, producing methane that feeds bacteria.

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