After much speculation about what NASA’s latest finding on Mars entailed, the agency revealed in a live discussion on Thursday that the Mars Curiosity rover found different and diverse varieties of organic material, including a “mysterious” methane. The agency added that these findings are instrumental in the search for life. What’s more, the organic molecules were found to be 100 times greater than any that was previously found on the planet’s surface.
NASA indicated that methane had previously been found in the red planet’s atmosphere in “large unpredictable plumes;” however, the methane levels found recently follow seasonal trends with more of it appearing in the warmer summer months than in the winter ones, reports Fortune.
Paul Mahaffy, a Director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA said that Curiosity was able to obtain organic molecules that had been trapped in rocks billions of years ago. The rover obtained ancient molecules from the bottom of Mars’s Gale Crater, an ancient lake that is estimated to be about 3.5-3.8 billion years old.
And even though Mars is uninhabitable today, the lake bed once allowed “liquid water” to accumulate within. The significance of evidence of water pooling is that these type of conditions could have supported life.
Curiosity was not able to determine the source of the organic molecules, but three different sources were surmised to have deposited the molecules in the dry lake bed. The three sources most likely came either from biology, meteorites, or natural rock-forming processes, according to NASA.
Something is creating methane on Mars, and one reason that the mysterious methane is an exciting find is due to the fact that a large percentage of methane is given by biology on Earth.
Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said,
“Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”
Usually, NASA releases news, theories, and other significant information about Mars without much of a buildup, but for this announcement, the space agency allotted a great deal of fanfare. The findings were also kept under wraps by the journal Science up until the time of the announcement, meaning that the information provided by Curiosity was previously available to scientists and was peer-reviewed but not made available to the public until now.
Curiosity is described by NASA as the “largest and most capable rover ever sent to Mars.” The rover landed on the red planet on August 6, 2012, after leaving Earth in November, 2011. USA Today reports that the rover, which is roughly about the size of a car, has “a seven-foot-long arm, 17 cameras, 10 science instruments,” and a laser that allows it to vaporize rocks.
Curiosity’s primary goal was to determine if Mars could support small life forms known as microbes and to also explore any habitable areas on the planet, according Mahaffey.
Many of the rover’s unique findings almost didn’t come to pass because a mechanical problem took the rover’s drill offline in December of 2016. Instead, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory began using a different drill technique known as Feed Extended Drilling.
“Keeps the drill’s bit extended out past two stabilizer posts that were originally used to steady the drill against Martian rocks. It lets Curiosity drill using the force of its robotic arm, a little more like the way a human would drill into a wall at home.”
On May 23, NASA announced that Curiosity’s new drilling technique was working as well as they hoped it would. That’s important because the drilling capabilities of Curiosity are a critical part of obtaining and analyzing Mars’s rock and soil samples.
Curiosity’s drilling capabilities and science instruments were additionally a key part in finding evidence of water. Water, a precursor to the red planet’s ability to sustain any forms of life, was evidenced in the pictures of crystals.
According to U.S. News, Mars enthusiasts were able to watch the highly anticipated science announcement on “Facebook Live, Twitch TV, Ustream, YouTube and Twitter/Periscope.” Mars enthusiasts such as Twitter user, Jessica Anne Brown, were encouraged to send their questions on social media by using #askNASA.
So, Mars may contain the building blocks of life, what’s next?
The new findings indicate that Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ. He went on to say that he was confident that ongoing, planned missions would unlock more “breathtaking” discoveries on Mars.
Indeed, other missions are headed to our neighboring planet. They include NASA’s InSight and ESA’s ExoMars. Insight’s first mission will be to explore the deep interior of Mars. The ExoMars will determine if life ever existed on Mars.
NASA answered the question asked by Jessica Ann Brown by describing some of the ExoMars’ directives. The ExoMars, they explained, will drill deeper than Curiosity can. Then the agency will use ExoMars to work toward obtaining and analyzing organic molecules that won’t be affected by the high radiation levels affecting the shallower samples of soil and rock.
The results from Curiosity will aid researchers and allow them to make informed decisions as they work to answer questions about the possibility of finding life on Mars. The rover coming upon methane in the surface and earlier findings of methane in the atmosphere give scientists hope that the later missions will find more organic material on the “surface and on the shallow subsurface.”