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Questions: Roger Summons on finding organic matter on Mars

08 June 2018
Questions: Roger Summons on finding organic matter on Mars

The rover, which has allowed scientists to explore whether Mars ever boasted conditions conducive to life, in 2014 made the first definitive detection of organic molecules, also in Gale crater rock formed from ancient lake sediment - but it was a much more limited set of compounds.

As seasons come and go on Mars, NASA's Curiosity Rover has been diligently sniffing and digging away, looking for signs the planet could have supported life.

NASA will use both these discoveries to inform the design of its upcoming Mars 2020 rover.

Biogeochemist and geologist Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is lead author of one of the two new Science papers, the one related to organic molecules.

"What the organic detections in the rock do is to add to the story of habitability".

"Because this lake had everything that organisms needed to be happy, maybe there was life in the lake", she says. Scientists released new findings on Thursday providing more evidence that suggest Mars was once a habitable planet.

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

One thing is for sure, though - whatever we can figure out about the chemistry of Mars, it's nearly certainly going to add precious details to our understanding of life in the cosmos. The European Space Agency plans to launch its own rover in a few years and NASA is building a powerful follow-on to Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover, that will be equipped with even more powerful instruments to advance the search for life. For present life, some scientists say we should look below the surface, in soils or in caves, where there might be liquid water still flowing and organic compounds around.

Curiosity also has confirmed seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

In two studies published today (June 7) in the journal Science, researchers from NASA reported the largest amount of organic matter on Mars ever obtained by the Curiosity rover. "It's fascinating what they mean for understanding life in our universe".

MIT News checked in with SAM team member Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology at MIT, and a co-author on the Science paper, about what the team's findings might mean for the possibility of life on Mars. 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. Over time, a picture of the ebb and flow of methane on Mars has emerged. Then the scientists sifted through the results to figure out what might be genuine Martian organics.

NASA has been searching for confirmation of organic molecules on Mars since the 1970s when it sent the Viking landers to the planet.

The traces of methane on Mars are tantalizing to biologists eager for evidence of life. Kerogen is a name given to organic material that is present in rocks and in carbonaceous meteorites.

But the scientists can not say what the larger molecules were or how they formed.

"The awesome consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars".

Methane gas can be a byproduct of life on Earth, but there are geological processes that can produce it, too.

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.