'Building blocks of life' found on Mars

'Building blocks of life' found on Mars

The discoveries were found using the USA space agency's Curiosity Mars Rover, which has been studying the Red Planet's surface since it first landed in 2012.

NASA also has another rover in the works with its Mars 2020 mission, which plans to drill cores and set them aside for a possible future pickup and return to Earth.

"What this new study is showing in some detail is the discovery of complex and diverse organic compounds in the sediments".

More powerful spacecraft are needed to prove whether life ever existed on Mars.

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water - an essential ingredient for life as we know it - to pool at the surface.

Both the methane gas and soil compounds are organic matter. The 2020 rover will include an advanced spectrometer to scan for organic molecules. The new organic molecule findings are 100 times greater than those previously found on Mars' surface, according to the agency.

The scientists were surprised to find organic compounds, especially in the amounts detected, considering the harsh conditions, including bombardment of solar radiation on the Martian surface. Instead, SAM detected fragments of much larger molecules that had been broken up during the high-temperature heating experiment.

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Potential contaminants were analyzed and accounted for, so the results are the most conclusive yet. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

"We found organic molecules in rocks from an ancient lakebed", said Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist and astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. It has been tacking across the floor of Gale Crater on Mars for five years, returning stunning images of Martian landscapes, with vistas opening up to show rocky outcrops seamed with mineral veins. Curiosity has had a somewhat rough go of things over the past few months, breaking its drilling mechanism and having to totally relearn how to use its tool in a new way so that it can continue to pierce Martian rocks.

There is a seasonal variation to the methane that repeats, which means the methane is being released from the Martian surface or from reservoirs beneath the surface.

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

Thimble-sized samples of material baked slowly in temperatures of between 500-840 degrees Celsius, revealed the grey mudstone contained different carbon-based molecules to those found at Yellowknife Bay. That could even be happening beneath the surface now, the researchers said.

As winter falls, gases are once again trapped in ice cages, helping explain at least some of the vanishing methane. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it's "geologically alive", or active below the surface. I want to know their story.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of worldwide space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet.

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