Dec 17, 2014 07:34 PM EST
While there are many requisite features for a planet to be host to forms of life, even as simple as archaea species, the most important known feature is the existence of organic molecules from which they can be created. And though there are still many questions left unanswered about our red neighbor on the galactic block, Mars, researchers from NASA say that the Curiosity Rover Mission has successfully identified methane and other organics which may give their teams a better insight into the possible watery past of our solar system's famed "Red Planet".
Over nearly two years, NASA's Curiosity Rover has been on a mission seeking out life on every surface of Mars, from the soil to the atmosphere. And while the search has always turned up the disappointing fact that life is not currently sustained on Mars, Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Laboratory, onboard of the small rover, has been able to sniff around in a different way than with the scientific eye. Utilizing gas chromatography, tunable laser spectrometry and an accurate mass spectrometer, the SAM Laboratory has found that while Mars' atmosphere may be thin, there may be additional organic molecules present in dense areas across the vast planet. According to data, four times the rover's laboratory sensed large spikes in the methane content of the atmosphere-more than ten times that of baseline data. Published this week in the journal Science, NASA researchers say that while the data is significant and may lead scientists to finding life on Mars, that results are at this time inconclusive and could be attributed to early water's interactions with the surface rocks.
"We will keep working on the puzzles these findings present" Curiosity project scientist at Cal Tech, John Grotzinger says. "Can we learn more about the active chemistry causing such fluctuations in the amount of methane in the atmosphere? Can we choose rock targets where identifiable organics have been preserved?"
For decades researchers have speculated that Mars may be heavily concentrated with organics, though without data many scientists mere speculated as to the condition and the nature of the organic molecules floating around. Now researchers believe that the samples discovered by Curiosity are a sign that organic materials persist on the planet-not just in the sky but in the ground as well. Last May, NASA researchers tasked the Curiosity rover with making its second drilling attempt, only to reveal that rocks on Mount Sharp contain particulates in ratios that may indicate the planet once contained vast amounts of liquid water.
"It's really interesting that our measurements from Curiosity of gases extracted from ancient rocks can tell us about loss of water from Mars" SAM principal investigator of NASA, Paul Mahaffy says. But the jury's still out on whether or not life was also lost when water disappeared from the surface of Mars.
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