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Organic matter found on Mars in 'significant breakthrough'

NASA earlier this week announced that the Curiosity rover had started analysing drilled samples on Mars in one of its onboard labs for the first time in more than a year. There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff.

Dr Webster is also awaiting results from the current ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission, which is orbiting the Red Planet, sniffing methane. In another paper published simultaneously in the journal Science, they describe background levels of methane, also an organic, in Mars's atmosphere that varies seasonally.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists can not rule out the possibility of biological origins.

Curiosity is the latest rover to trundle across the gritty sands of Mars. The organic compounds aren't even the first molecules of their kind found on Mars, though they are the oldest.

Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who led the organics study, said she's intrigued by the possibility that life might have existed and adapted on Mars. Maybe there are subsurface Martian bacteria eating that methane, Tanya Harrison, director of research for Arizona State University's Space Technology and Science ("NewSpace") Initiative, told Gizmodo. "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". Over the intervening years, fluid flowing thought it would have initiated chemical reactions that could have destroyed the organic matter - the material discovered may in fact be fragments from bigger molecules.

In addition to finding organic molecules in the rocks in Gale Crater, rover scientists are reporting another intriguing finding.

'With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life, ' said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa headquarters.

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Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater.

And although hopes were high that the two landers and their instruments would detect signs of life or organic compounds in samples taken from the surface, that didn't happen.

These newly-found ancient organics, ten Kate said, serve to confirm that the basic conditions for life to form really did exist on Mars 3.5 billion years ago, and that there wasn't any outside force (say, ultraviolet light) powerful enough to destroy them entirely. With five years of data from a single location, they now have answers.

Even though the TGO mission can't get as close to the source as the Curiosity Rover, Dr Webster said it could locate potential areas where methane is concentrated or coming from.

On Mars, organic molecules could have been produced by some form of either present or past lifeforms. Its two-year mission will explore Mars to see if it's "geologically alive", or active below the surface.

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said. This is also when life was evolving on our own planet.

"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", NASA reports.

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