'Building blocks of life' found on Mars

Mars Curiosity rover selfie

What they claimed they had discovered was a fossilised micro-organism in a Martian meteorite, which they argued was evidence that there has once been life on the Red Planet.

The new evidence comes from a pair of rocks.

But the SAM results were hard to interpret - there were a lot of extraneous signals that didn't make any sense.

"We have just satisfied a mission objective for Curiosity", says Jennifer Eigenbrode, study lead author and a member of the Mars Science Laboratory mission team.

Then she looked at the analyzer results again. Only a few of the organic molecules, sulfur-bearing carbon rings called thiophenes, were abundant enough to be detected directly, Eigenbrode says. Organic molecules contain carbon, the chemical element central to life. The researchers suspect the thiophenes' carbon came from as-yet-unidentified larger organic molecules, which had been trapped and preserved inside the jarosite for perhaps billions of years.

In any case, Webster said the methane apparently works its way into the atmosphere from sub-surface reservoirs of some sort, places where non-biological geochemistry is going on or where microbial life might somehow flourish.

"Are there signs of life on Mars?"

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.

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

Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, though they can also be produced by chemical reactions unrelated to life.

She isn't ruling out that possibility, however. More powerful spacecraft are needed to prove whether life ever existed on Mars. "Whether there was in the past or not is certainly an open question". About 3.5 billion years ago, research suggests, this pockmark on the Martian surface was brimming with water. There may be more material buried deeper.

The super exciting part is that the method used to detect these chemicals indicates they're not floating around in the rock all alone, but are smaller pieces of organic chemistry that's been torn off even bigger, more complicated materials.

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.

The methane study, spearheaded by JPL atmospheric scientist Chris Webster, is also intriguing for astrobiologists.

"Once it's on the surface, the temperature on the surface regulates the way in which it holds on to the methane through 'stickiness, ' or surface adsorption as we call it", he says. Tellingly, the methane levels appear to periodically spike in time with Martian seasons, being about three times higher in the sunny summertime than in the darker, colder winter. About 95 percent of the methane in Earth's atmosphere is produced from biological activity, though the scientists said it is too soon to know if the Martian methane also is related to life.

Over the years, scientists have amassed a number of clues that can help answer the question of Mars' habitability, including evidence of liquid water. Mission scientists announced today in a paper published in the journal Science that Curiosity discovered a whole catalogue of preserved organic matter in the first rock layers that the rover checked there.

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