'Mars Could Have Supported Life': NASA Suggests Red Planet Was Habitable

Theresa Obrien
June 8, 2018

NASA's Curiosity rover landed inside Mars's 96-mile-wide Gale Crater on August 6, 2012, and since then it has been probing the Red Planet's geology, climate and the question of whether or not it has ever supported microbial life.

In two studies published Thursday in the journal Science, this new finding from NASA's Curiosity rover is paired with another discovery: The planet's methane - another organic molecule usually (but not always) produced by living beings - varies with the seasons.

The Curiosity rover, which has travelled 19.3 km since it landed in the Gale crater almost six years ago, detected a number of organic molecules in pieces of Martian mudstone it drilled from the lake bed and heated in its oven.

Two recent discoveries from Mars - one from the surface and one in the atmosphere - are the latest evidence that the Red Planet could have once supported life, according to NASA.

"The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars", said Inge Loes ten Kate, a Utrecht University scientist in an accompanying article in Science. The findings add to the body of evidence suggesting Mars may once have been able to sustain life. This doesn't constitute proof that life existed on Mars, though. When they did experiments in their laboratory on Earth to bake samples containing those three types of organic carbon, the readings were all consistent with what was detected on Mars.

"They could be changed from something like we've observed at the base of the mountain into methane that eventually makes its way back in to the atmosphere", she said.

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The revelations build on a similar announcement made by NASA in 2014, where scientists confirmed that they had discovered chlorinated molecules on the planet for the first time. If researchers saw this signature on Mars, the case for life would get stronger. Earlier tests may have hinted at organics, but the presence of chlorine in martian dirt complicated those interpretations. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources.

A 2018 self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on Vera Rubin Ridge, made up of a composite of photo from the rover. The so-called "tough" molecules include carbon and hydrogen, and may also contain oxygen, nitrogen, and other building blocks of life. No one knows what's making this methane, but scientists speculate that it's released from underground pockets.

Curiosity has detected organics embedded in the sediments of the "Pahrump Hills" area of Gale Crater. Specifically, NASA says that lower levels of methane were found to decrease in the winter and peak in the summer on an annual basis.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?" said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters.

"We don't know if that methane is ancient or modern", Webster said in a press conference. After the first Mariner missions of the 1960s, even these were ruled out and the hope was that when the Viking landers touched down in 1976, they'd be able to find signs of biological processes. "It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there", explained Eigenbrode.

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