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Two Steps Forward in the Search for Life on Mars

We haven’t found aliens but we are a little further along in our search for life on Mars thanks to two recent discoveries from our Curiosity Rover.

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We detected organic molecules at the harsh surface of Mars! And what’s important about this is we now have a lot more certainty that there’s organic molecules preserved at the surface of Mars. We didn’t know that before.

One of the discoveries is we found organic molecules just beneath the surface of Mars in 3 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

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Second, we’ve found seasonal variations in methane levels in the atmosphere over 3 Mars years (nearly 6 Earth years). These two discoveries increase the chances that the record of habitability and potential life has been preserved on the Red Planet despite extremely harsh conditions on the surface.

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Both discoveries were made by our chem lab that rides aboard the Curiosity rover on Mars.

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Here’s an image from when we installed the SAM lab on the rover. SAM stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars” and SAM did two things on Mars for this discovery.

One – it tested Martian rocks. After the arm selects a sample of pulverized rock, it heats up that sample and sends that gas into the chamber, where the electron stream breaks up the chemicals so they can be analyzed.

What SAM found are fragments of large organic molecules preserved in ancient rocks which we think come from the bottom of an ancient Martian lake. These organic molecules are made up of carbon and hydrogen, and can include other elements like nitrogen and oxygen. That’s a possible indicator of ancient life…although non-biological processes can make organic molecules, too.

The other action SAM did was ‘sniff’ the air.

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When it did that, it detected methane in the air. And for the first time, we saw a repeatable pattern of methane in the Martian atmosphere. The methane peaked in the warm, summer months, and then dropped in the cooler, winter months.

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On Earth, 90 percent of methane is produced by biology, so we have to consider the possibility that Martian methane could be produced by life under the surface. But it also could be produced by non-biological sources. Right now, we don’t know, so we need to keep studying the Mars!

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One of our upcoming Martian missions is the InSight lander. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to give the Red Planet its first thorough checkup since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. It is the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that our Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

Read the full release on today’s announcement HERE

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Source: NASA

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Two Steps Forward in the Search for Life on Mars

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