NASA's Jennifer Eigenbrode said in an interview this year, 'I look at organic molecules in rocks, ice and sediments and try to figure out where they came from and what happened to them over time. The host of the session, assistant director of science for communications in NASA's Planetary Science Division Michelle Thaller, began by clearing up any rumors that the agency would announce that they had found alien life.
Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the incredible consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said. The fact that similar molecules were also present at this new site suggests that this kind of organic material is present in abundance.
"The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up", said Curiosity's project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "And what it does, it gives us a key to unlocking the mysteries associated with Mars methane because now we have something to test our models and our understanding against".
Dr Webster is also awaiting results from the current ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission, which is orbiting the Red Planet, sniffing methane. "That doesn't mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life", he added.
What they claimed they had discovered was a fossilised micro-organism in a Martian meteorite, which they argued was evidence that there has once been life on the Red Planet.
On 6 August 2012, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite (1) arrived on Mars onboard the Curiosity rover. One group found carbon-containing organic matter in 3.5-billion-year-old rock. But the organic molecules identified by the car-sized rover then were too few and ambiguous. The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide.
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The other paper in Science reported on new details in the search for the source of methane on Mars, which has wide spikes and dips according to the seasons. The Martian surface is bombarded with radiation that can degrade organic compounds, explains Eigenbrode.
Over five years, Curiosity has used its Tunable Laser Spectrometer to measure methane in the atmosphere at the Gale crater. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.
A potential explanation for the seasonal Martian methane. The surface of Mars readily destroys these molecules, making them hard to detect.
"The idea that best fits our data is the idea of sub-surface storage", he said.
This work was funded by NASA's Mars Exploration Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington.
"If there are no organics, we can pretty much forget about there being life or ever having been life on Mars", says Dr. Weintraub. For example, scientists want to know if it has "Mars quakes". "The first one would be life, which we don't know about". But they could also be the result of abiotic chemical reactions on the surface of the planet.