It’s not a definitive sign that life once existed on the Red Planet, but a JPL-managed rover has discovered organic molecules in rocks estimated to be 3 billion years old near the surface of Mars, mission managers announced Thursday.
According to NASA, organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen — and possibly oxygen, nitrogen and other elements — and they are commonly associated with life. However, they can also be created through “non-biological processes,” so they’re not a definite indicator of life, officials said.
The discovery, however, is giving researchers confidence that they are on the right track as they search for clues about Mars’ history, while providing a roadmap for future missions to the planet.
In addition to the material found in Mars rocks, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory-managed rover Curiosity has also detected seasonal variations in methane levels in the planet’s atmosphere, a pattern that could also traced to biological origins.
“This is the first time we’ve seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it,” JPL researcher Chris Webster said.
Webster attributed the discovery to the longevity of Curiosity, which has been studying Mars since 2012, and its ability to measure seasonal changes in environmental readings.
NASA officials noted that methane had previously been detected in Mars’ atmosphere, but the latest readings show the levels peak during warmer months and drop during cooler months.
“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. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”
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