NASA’s Curiosity rover has uncovered the best evidence yet that life may have once existed on Mars.
In two separate studies on data collected by the Mars rover over the last few years, scientists identified an abundant source of organic matter in an ancient lakebed, and traced some of the planet’s atmospheric methane to its roots.
The groundbreaking results will help to guide the search for microbial life and improve our understanding of seasonal processes on Mars.
‘The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up,’ said Curiosity’s project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
NASA revealed details on the latest findings in a press conference Thursday afternoon.
While the announcement may not be the detection of life itself, the finding address factors that are ‘fundamental to our search for life,’ explained Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, during the conference.
Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, as well nitrogen and other elements.
These molecules are typically associated with life on Earth, but can also be created through non-biological
The molecules identified in the Curiosity samples were found in rocks from an ancient lakebed, explained lead author and astrobiologist Dr Jennifer L. Eigenbrode.
The rover extracted and heated samples from Mojave and Confidence Hills in the Gale Crater – both of which are known to contain mudstones dating back roughly three billion years.
This revealed the presence molecules that resembled organic-rich sedimentary rock found on Earth, according to the team, including thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.
‘Those organic molecules could have come from life,’ Eigenbrode said, ‘but we don’t know that there was ever life on Mars.
‘So those specific molecules are not evidence of life.’
Instead, the researcher explained, these molecules could be traced to non-life sources, such as meteorites.
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