NASA may have found possible fingerprints of ancient life on Mars. In a landmark discovery, NASA’s rover Curiosity found carbon-based compounds called organic molecules, which are necessary for life as we know it. The nuclear-powered rover has been searching the surface of the Red Planet since August of 2012 and it may have finally hit pay dirt with the discovery of building blocks for life.
The Mars Curiosity rover made the exciting find in Gale Crater, which is believed to be a shallow lake the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. NASA had previously found clay minerals at the bottom of the crater with layers with sulfur and oxygen-bearing minerals in higher regions, meaning water flowed in this area at some point. Now they have found complex organic molecules from about 3.5 billion years ago from two different drill sites.
“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. “Curiosity has shown that Gale Crater was habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, with conditions comparable to those on the early Earth, where life evolved around that time. The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time.”
The sulfur could have protected the potential organisms from the radiation and bleach-like substances called perchlorates. But NASA doesn’t want to jump to conclusions just yet because the organic compounds could be formed by biological, geological, and meteoritic sources, but it is mindboggling on how organic compounds could have survived the harsh conditions of Mars for billions of years.
In a second mind-blowing discovery, Curiosity also found traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Thus far, the rover’s sensors have only detected the methane in Gale Crater. Scientists could not determine if the methane molecules have similar isotopes of methane released by life on Earth. They are also unsure if the methane molecules are ancient or new, which is somewhat puzzling since methane only survives for a few hundred years. “It’s a gas in the atmosphere of Mars that really shouldn’t be there,” says NASA Jet Propulsion Lab scientist Chris Webster. That means something on Mars is creating methane. Could something be flatulating on Mars?
“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”
“We’re in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life,” said Jennifer Eigenbrode, a NASA biogeochemist and lead author of a study.
So there could definitely have been life on Mars. We’re talking about Martians. Maybe not green beings with wide, black lifeless eyes and spaceships who love to stick their probes into everything Martians, but some form of life could have existed on Mars billions of years ago.
NASA’s $2.5 billion Curiosity rover is about the size of a car. The vehicle has a seven-foot-long arm, has a chemistry lab, carries 10 science instruments, 17 cameras, and a laser to vaporize rocks.