NASA robot finds 'building blocks for life' on Mars

What has Nasa found on Mars? Alien life? Watch announcement livestream here

About 95 per cent of the methane in Earth's atmosphere is produced from biological activity, though the scientists say it is too soon to know if the Martian methane also is related to life.

If Viking was phase one of our search for life on Mars, and the methodical quest for clues of habitability that followed was phase two, says Grinspoon, "this is the successful culmination of phase two".

But life-hunting Mars missions are coming, and soon.

The studies on methane and on organic molecules were published Thursday in the journal Science. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life. Those molecules are familiar building blocks for life here on Earth, including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

This engineering marvel, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, has revolutionized our understanding of the red planet.

The discovery is not a direct evidence of life.

Researchers at the space agency announced Thursday that the Curiosity rover has discovered strong concentrations of organic molecules in 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks on the red planet's surface.

Curiosity's upgraded replacement, the Mars 2020 rover, is scheduled to land in early 2021 and start gathering more soil samples. The Viking Project was the first U.S. mission to safely land spacecraft on the Martian surface, as well as send back images. The latter element, it is thought, came from a sulfur-rich mineral called jarosite that previous Curiosity investigations had revealed in 3.5-billion-year-old deposits in Gale Crater-laid down at a time when the crater was warm, wet and apparently habitable. It likely held a lake, and now includes a mountain. The rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument cooked some of the Martian dirt and unlocked some long-hidden carbon-containing molecules, some with sulfur and others with relatively complex structure.

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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. Scientists already knew billions of years ago liquid water existed on Mars and the crater had an ancient lake. Instead, SAM detected fragments of much larger molecules that had been broken up during the high-temperature heating experiment.

Then she looked at the analyzer results again.

"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space". The Wikipedia article on "organic matter" makes the point: "Organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don't involve life". It has been tacking across the floor of Gale Crater on Mars for five years, returning stunning images of Martian landscapes, with vistas opening up to show rocky outcrops seamed with mineral veins.

In addition, methane's observed behavior on Mars is weird.

These maps could help guide future life-hunting surface craft to promising locales, Webster said. The planet had a thicker atmosphere at the time, and the presence of organic molecules suggests life could have had the necessary pieces to get going.

"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 the time", wrote Utrecht University astrobiologist Inge Loes ten Kate of the Netherlands.

NASA's InSight Lander, launched on May 5, will land on Mars on November 26.

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