Sunday, 19 August, 2018

NASA’s major Mars findings: organic molecules and seasonal changes

NASA news conference Mars announcement GETTY NASANASA's news conference will broadcast live today at 7pm UK time
| 08 June, 2018, 16:27

In four locations, including the spot nicknamed Mojave (pictured here), the Curiosity rover discovered thiophenes (molecules that include a ring of carbon and sulphur atoms) and other substances that on Earth can be linked to biological activity. What they claimed they had discovered was a fossilised micro-organism in a Martian meteorite, which they argued was evidence that there has once been life on the Red Planet. Instead it's believed that the red planet have had an atmosphere that supported vast oceans of liquid water and within that water may have flourished organic life. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of worldwide space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet. Hints have been found before, but this is the best evidence yet.

"We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track"'. Molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen are literally vital to life as we know it and if these molecules could exist for two or three billion years, it might give us a clue as to whether Mars was once habitable.

These chemicals might not mean a great deal to most of us, but to areologists (that's Martian geologists) it's an indication that the organic chemistry in Martian mudstone is extremely similar to our own.

Curiosity also measured an unexpectedly large seasonal cycle in the low levels of atmospheric methane.

There are organic molecules all over the place in our solar system - some were found by Rosetta on comet 67P - and they can be created by non-biological processes, but the findings serve as further encouragement to the researchers investigating our planetary neighbour. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes.

Another team of scientists, led by Christopher Webster from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence that methane concentrations detected on Mars follow strong seasonal variations.

JPL's Christopher Webster, lead author on the study, said it's the first time Martian methane has shown a repeated pattern.


Seasonal changes in methane at Gale Crater.

"They could be changed from something like we've observed at the base of the mountain into methane that eventually makes its way back in to the atmosphere", she said. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech. The space agency already has its eyes on the future as the Mars 2020 Rover has been called a "souped-up science machine" that will expand upon Curiosity's findings.

According to NASA, billions of years ago a water lake inside Gale Crater held ingredients necessary for life, data from the rover reveals.

Ms Campbell said if life did produce the organic molecules it was on the "simpler end of the scale". Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make auto tires more durable, according to 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.

On February 26, 2018, it bored a hole about 0.5 inches deep into a target rock, during the trial run of a new, jury-rigged drilling technique. Also pleasing is that the presence of chlorine and sulphur, which both preserve organics, suggests the presence of many more deposits from which to learn more about Mars' past and possible ecosystems.

NASA's Curiosity rover landed inside Mars's 96-mile-wide Gale Crater on August 6, 2012, and since then it has been probing the Red Planet's geology, climate and the question of whether or not it has ever supported microbial life. There's also the chance the rovers will dig up fossilised evidence of life.

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