Curiosity Rover Discovers Ancient 'Building Blocks for Life' on Mars

Ignacio Smith
June 8, 2018

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules", says Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. One of NASA's aims with the Curiosity Rover is to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet. "It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there". She said the discoveries break down some of the strongest arguments put forward by life-on-Mars skeptics, herself included. The rover has not found evidence of life itself.

The Mars 2020 rover won't represent the first jump in camera improvement as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers had 10 each, and the Curiosity rover had 17.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP.

The space agency announced Thursday that its Curiosity rover had uncovered "tough" organic molecules preserved in three-billion-year-old rocks in the planet's Gale Crater, which is believed to have once contained a shallow lake. Organic matter can be one of several things: a record detailing ancient life, a food source for life or something that exists in the place of life.

Key to this search into the distant past has been to test for the presence of ancient organic molecules in areas that were once home to liquid water, like mud flats and stream beds.

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Three Mars years' worth of data shows that along with spikes in methane, levels swing between 0.24 and 0.65 parts per billion, peaking in the northern hemisphere summer. In a related paper on page 1093, Webster et al.

This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it. "The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal 'breathing, '" Webster added.

Seasonal changes in methane at Gale Crater.

By examining data spanning almost three Martian years (six Earth years), Webster and his colleagues discerned the first repeating pattern in Martian methane. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The rover was able to heat the samples to between 932 and 1508 degrees Fahrenheit and study the organic molecules released through gas analysis. The latter element, it is thought, came from a sulfur-rich mineral called jarosite that previous Curiosity investigations had revealed in 3.5-billion-year-old deposits in Gale Crater-laid down at a time when the crater was warm, wet and apparently habitable. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make vehicle tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

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The results also don't indicate whether the methane is being created by chemical processes involving rocks alone, or whether some living or formerly living bacteria generated it.

Leading contenders have included some sort of chemical reaction based on a rock called olivine, meteorites dropping organic materials into the atmosphere, or a release from a sub-surface reservoir close to the surface. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.

The Curiosity rover has lasted three times as long as it was meant to and is still going, which helped with the study of seasonal methane cycles. Now, samples taken from two different drill sites on an ancient lakebed have yielded complex organic macromolecules that look strikingly similar to kerogen, the goopy fossilized building blocks of oil and gas on Earth. He said he was confident about NASA's ongoing and planned missions on the Red Planet.

"The big takeaway is that we can find evidence".

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