NASA’s major Mars findings: organic molecules and seasonal changes

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" "If you explore both of those paths forward, it's astounding", Eigenbrode said.

NASA now operates three orbiters and two surface rovers at Mars with a new lander - InSight - on the way. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of worldwide space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet.

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. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

"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.

The Curiosity rover, launched in 2011 with about $2.5 billion worth of scientific equipment with the intent of exploring and analyzing Mars' Gale Crater.

"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.

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The organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock in Gale Crater - believed to once contain a shallow lake around the size of Lake Ontario - suggest conditions back then may have been conducive to life.

The discovery leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might.

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Some of the new science instruments included on the next Mars rover include an X-ray spectrometer, ultraviolet laser, excited rings of carbon atoms, and a ground-penetrating radar that will allow the space agency to look under the surface of Mars up to 30 feet deep depending on terrain. And the high amount of sulfur in the samples is most likely how they've lasted so long, the researchers said.

NASA has good evidence that Gale Crater where Curiosity is rolling around used to be a lake.

Over the years, scientists have amassed a number of clues that can help answer the question of Mars' habitability, including evidence of liquid water.

"It could be from rock processes", processes that have been going on during the billions of years since Mars formed.

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Detecting this organic molecule in the atmosphere, combined with the finding of organic compounds in the soil, has strong implications about potential life on Mars in its past.

There's enough ambient carbon and hydrogen in the solar system that they react to form basic organic compounds pretty frequently, even without biology involved, ten Kate said.

"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said. For example, scientists want to know if it has "Mars quakes". But they could also be the result of abiotic chemical reactions on the surface of the planet.

"If there are no organics, we can pretty much forget about there being life or ever having been life on Mars", says Dr. Weintraub.

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

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