NASA rover finds organic molecules, methane gas on Mars

Tue Dec 16, 2014 10:29pm EST
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Reuters - NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has found carbon-containing compounds in samples drilled out of an ancient rock, the first definitive detection of organics on the surface of Earth’s neighbor planet, scientists said on Tuesday.

The rover also found spurts of methane gas in the atmosphere, a chemical that on Earth is strongly tied to life. Additional studies, which may be beyond the rover’s capabilities, are needed to determine if the organic compounds and/or the methane gas were produced by past or present life on Mars or if they stem from geochemical processes.

“We have had a major discovery. We have found organics on Mars,” Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., said during a webcast press conference at a science meeting in San Francisco.

“The probability of any of these things being sources (from life) ... we just have to respect that it is a possibility,” he added.

Curiosity picked up hints of organics in its earliest chemical analysis of rocks in Gale Crater, a 96-mile (154-km) wide impact basin where the rover made a sky-crane landing in August 2012.

Last week, scientists published research showing the crater was once filled with water, with sediments building up over time to form three-mile (5-km) high Mount Sharp, which rises from the basin’s floor.

Shortly after Curiosity landed, it found that the planet most like Earth in the solar system had the right chemical ingredients and environmental conditions to support microbial life, fulfilling the primary goal of the mission.

The methane detections were a big surprise, said Curiosity co-investigator Chris Webster, with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.   Continued...

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity drilled into this rock target, "Cumberland," during the 279th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars, on May 19, 2013 and collected a powdered sample of material from the rock's interior, in this handout photo provided by NASA .  REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Handout