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Organic ‘building blocks of life’ discovered on Mars

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
June 07, 2018

Curiosity Rover has discovered organic material that is the “building blocks of life” on Mars, NASA announced on Thursday.

“Ancient organic material & mysterious methane! @MarsCuriosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks suggesting the planet could’ve supported ancient life + new evidence in the atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on Mars,” NASA tweeted.

Curiosity Rover also tweeted: “Oh, these are #organics in my neighborhood… Methane swells each summer and ancient carbon-compounds locked in rocks. I haven’t found life on Mars, but signs say…we’re on the right track.”

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The evidence was preserved in rock and suggests that Mars could have supported ancient life, and that there is evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the current search for life on the Red Planet, NASA said.

“While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface,” NASA pointed out.

Curiosity Rover found “tough” organic molecules in 3 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface of the Red Planet, and seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere.

Organic molecules are composed of carbon and hydrogen, and might also include oxygen and nitrogen. Organic molecules are associated with life but can also be created by non-biological processes, thus not a necessary indicator of life.

“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. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

According to NASA: “Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources.”

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“The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter,” Eigenbrode said. “Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.”