Published: Fri, June 08, 2018
Science | By Dan Gutierrez

Mars Has Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane

Mars Has Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane

The Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012 with a detective's mission: to find clues about whether or not life could exist on the Red Planet.

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.

In addition to organic chemicals, NASA revealed that Curiosity discovered seasonal atmospheric methane variations on the Red Planet. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. Methane is another organic molecule. On Mars, that's been a maddening challenge: While scientists have detected bursts of methane on the planet, they've appeared at random - and thus, it's been hard to figure out what the source is.

This suggests the lake inside the Gale Crate once had all necessary ingredients to support life, even chemical building blocks, and energy sources.

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft - and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars - are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet. Combined with high-energy ultraviolet light and cosmic rays streaming in from space, perchlorates would destroy any organic material on the surface, leaving little to be seen by carbon-seeking landers and rovers.

Now, with years of Curiosity's atmospheric readings at their disposal, Webster and his colleagues were able to analyze 55 Earth months (or roughly three Martian years) of data, finding that there were indeed low levels of background radiation - and that it seemed to experience seasonal surges, almost tripling at its peak near summer's end in the northern hemisphere (and winter's end in the south). This includes findings about Mars' atmosphere and organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones in the Gale crater.

JPL's Christopher Webster, lead author on the study, said it's the first time Martian methane has shown a repeated pattern.

Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater.

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"This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode.

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover snaps a self-portrait at a site called Vera Rubin Ridge on the Martian surface in February 2018 in this image obtained on June 7, 2018.

"This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity". And they believe the fragments could have been parts of larger molecules present a long, long time ago on Mars.

But that's not the only discovery from Mars. This new discovery of old organics strengthens that possibility and offers new insights into how things preserve in Mars rock, Grinspoon says.

"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said.

"As temperatures change from winter to summer, the methane changes greatly because as the surface gets a little bit warmer it releases a lot more methane", he said.

The methane is cool, whether it's linked to life or not. The planned missions will use tools that can look for organic compounds directly in the rock.

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