NASA's Curiosity Rover Finds Chemical Building Blocks For Life On Mars

The Curiosity Mars Rover

The Curiosity Mars Rover

The scientists behind experiments conducted by the Curiosity rover are today reporting two results that make the Red Planet's story even more interesting.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington, said: "With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life".

The new findings - "tough" organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere - appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

All of the outside sources I spoke with said it's important to be skeptical about claims of life, extinct or otherwise, on the Red Planet.

NASA is remaining characteristically tight-lipped, but has confirmed the announcement will feature "new science results from NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover".

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Referring to the findings regarding organic compounds and methane, Webster said, "They hint at an earlier time on Mars when water was present and the existence of primitive life forms was possible". Both discoveries were made possible by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover and have been detailed in a pair of new studies.

The scientists hope to find better preserved organic compounds with Curiosity or other rovers that would allow them to check for chemical signatures of life.

While not direct evidence of life, the compounds drilled from Mars' Gale Crater are the most diverse array ever taken from the surface of the planet since the robotic vehicle landed in 2012, experts say. "That doesn't mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life", he added.

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

While it could be produced by microorganisms under the surface of Mars, it could also be produced by non-biological processes such as chemical reactions in rocks, or the breakdown of organic matter in dust delivered by comets or meteors, by UV radiation.

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The organic-rich sample came from the bottom of what used to be a massive lake inside Gale Crater billions of years ago. Perhaps, some researchers speculated, Mars's remaining organics-and thus any signs of past or present life-were locked away in its subsurface depths.

These results also inform scientists' decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars.

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

"What we have detected is what we would expect from a sample from an ancient lake environment on Earth", said Eigenbrode, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Plus, scientists don't know what the original molecules were before Curiosity heated the rocks to take the measurement, Utrecht University scientist Inge Loes ten Kate, who was not involved with the research, told Gizmodo. What the authors have found is a systematic variation in methane concentration with season, with the highest concentrations occurring at the Gale Crater towards the end of the northern summer.

Methane is considered the simplest organic molecule. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade.

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"I think part of the Mars community is frustrated with these incremental advances", she says, so there's a push to go look for life directly again.

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