January 19, 2019

NASA almost found life on Mars

08 June 2018, 09:27 | Dale Webster

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The second paper investigates a problem that has been disturbing Mars scientists for several years: the abundance of methane in Mars' atmosphere.

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.

"We found organic molecules in rocks from an ancient lakebed", said Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist and astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. So what if scientists were able to drill 10 meters, 100 meters, 1,000 meters?

Naturally, the usual UFO fans have jumped on this and are suggesting it's probably aliens - or at least some sign of life on the Red Planet.

A reminder: Organic molecules aren't necessarily produced by organisms; they're just chemical compounds that contain carbon. Oh, please - even on Earth what they found would not be enough to support the claim!

Curiosity sampled sites by drilling five centimeters below the surface in the Gale crater, which is where the rover landed in 2012. She pointed out that the surface of Mars is regularly exposed to space radiation, and that radiation and chemicals typically break down organic matter.

But the water vanished when most of the Martian atmosphere was stripped away by brutal solar winds.

In 2015, however, Curiosity made the first tentative detection of organic molecules on Mars, finding evidence of chlorine-contaminated carbon compounds in soil samples heated to more than 800 degrees Celsius in SAM.

The two studies build on and advance smaller detections of atmospheric methane and ancient organic compounds on Mars.

'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.

Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the fantastic consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said. Both discoveries were made possible by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover and have been detailed in a pair of new studies. But the origin of methane on Mars has always been debated. What's not yet clear is whether or not the methane is, indeed, biological. And now they've added a catalogue of organic molecules to that list. The surge in methane seems to fade as quickly as it appears, indicating there's not just a variable source, but a methane sink as well. This means they can be expected in certain cycles-seasonal, if you will-and therefore, tested. "Biological, geological and meteoritic sources are all possible", they wrote. The changes were observed over three Martian years, which are equivalent to almost half a dozen Earth years. The levels averaged at 0.41 parts per billion by volume, but ranged from 0.24 to 0.65 depending on the season. The gas creeps from below the surface up to be released into the Mars atmosphere via riverbeds, cracks, and crevices in the surface of the planet. And even if the reservoir explanation is correct, it remains to be seen what's feeding them. Future missions might also seek places where there's "significant seepage" and attempt to figure out its source.

Three-and-a-half billion years ago, the floor of Gale Crater on Mars was the muddy bottom of a large lake where sediment was deposited and, over time, turned into a fine-grained layered rock.

More powerful spacecraft are needed to prove whether life ever existed on Mars.

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