The NASA Curiosity rover discovered ancient organic matter in soil samples taken from mudstone in Mars, while also detecting methane in the Red Planet's atmosphere.
The discovery made by the Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since 2012 and recently started drilling again after a one-year hiatus, raises a lot of possibilities. One thing is for sure though — Mars just became an even more interesting place in the search for life beyond Earth.
NASA Discovers Building Blocks Of Life On Mars
NASA, which hyped up the announcement of the Curiosity discovery, did not disappoint.
According to the agency, the Mars rover found organic matter and methane on Mars, discoveries that were detailed in two studies that were published on the Science journal. Together, the findings were tagged by researchers as "breakthroughs in astrobiology."
The organic matter was extracted from 3-billion-year-old mudstone in Mars's Gale Crater, created by an asteroid impact that exposed sedimentary rocks in an ancient lakebed. When the samples taken from the crater were heated, organic matter similar to the ones found in rocks on Earth were released.
The methane on Mars, meanwhile, was identified through the analysis of atmospheric data provided by Curiosity. Over a span of three years on Mars, equivalent to about 4.5 years on Earth, the Mars rover detected methane levels spiking as seasons changed. This suggested that the gas was trapped in permafrost, but was heated up and released from underground reservoirs.
The findings were surprising, considering that past missions to Mars did not succeed in detecting them.
The Meaning Of The Curiosity Discovery On Mars
The discovery of organic matter and methane on Mars is not sufficient evidence to prove that there are aliens on Mars.
Organic matter on Mars means that it can be preserved for billions of years, even on harsh environment of the Martian surface. The organics, which are complex carbon chains that form the building blocks of life on Earth, may exist without life, but they can also be records of the presence of ancient life or their food source.
Methane, meanwhile, is a fragile hydrocarbon associated with life because on Earth, it is produced by living things. The presence of methane on the Red Planet is therefore seen as a clue that there are microbes on Mars, at least.
"Are there signs of life on Mars?" asked Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track."