Rover finds 2 new life clues on Mars

     IMMINENT NASA is to reveal findings from its Mars mission

Getty IMMINENT NASA is to reveal findings from its Mars mission

The discovery of a wide variety of organic molecules and the detection of a seasonal methane pattern - described in two separate studies in the journal Science - add new fuel to the search for past life on Mars, scientists said. Previous research had seen evidence for sporadic methane plumes on Mars, but never seasonally recurring events.

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover snaps a self-portrait at a site called Vera Rubin Ridge on the Martian surface in February 2018 in this image obtained on June 7, 2018.

"The thing about the chlorinated molecules is that it's not what you'd typically find in natural samples, and so we weren't sure what the significance was at the time", Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, lead author of one of the papers, said in a briefing. The first evidence is preserved in Martian rocks and suggests the planet could have supported ancient life.

The space agency has not divulged specific information about what it may have found, leaving many to wonder what intriguing details will be learned about the red planet.

"That would be exciting because if that is done within two years, NASA can send a mission specifically to that place", he said.

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Scientists have been seeking organic molecules on Mars ever since the 1976 Viking landers.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference.

To determine whether the methane is biological, Webster said, scientists can weigh the kinds of carbon atoms it contains (life prefers the lighter versions).

As for the "mysterious methane", NASA scientists say that the gas goes through seasonal variations in the atmosphere over the course of three Mars years - or every six Earth years. Now, scientists working with NASA's Curiosity rover are reporting that this rock still harbours organic molecules that must have been present in the water all those eons ago.

The Mars 2020 rover won't represent the first jump in camera improvement as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers had 10 each, and the Curiosity rover had 17. This doesn't constitute proof that life existed on Mars, though. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter". 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. "We also don't know if that methane was created from rock chemistry or it was created by microbes".

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It "defines how questions will be asked and pursued in the next stage of Mars exploration", Anbar, who was not involved in the study, told AFP by email.

For his part Webster says he has no preference among the different explanations, and believes it will take a long time before any final conclusions can be drawn. What they found are organic molecules but not something in a molecular form that is important for life. Or it could be ancient, belched out billions of years ago by geologic or biological processes and then trapped in matrices of ice and rock that unfreeze when warmed by the sun.

It was to a great fanfare of publicity that researchers announced they had found evidence for past life on Mars in 1996.

The mudstone rock was drilled from the top five centimeters (two inches) of the Martian surface and heated in a miniature analysis lab located on board the rover. It arrived at Mars in 2016 and is now mapping concentrations of methane and other gases from on high.

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