In a major announcement today NASA has revealed that the Curiosity Rover has discovered organic matter on the surface of Mars. The discovery implies that our nearest planetary neighbour may once have been home to life.
A member Curiosity project, Ashwin Vasavada, addressed the press stating “The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up,”. Whilst this does not suggest one way or another whether life currently exists on Mars, it does offer an indication that life has existed on the planet in some form, at some point.
The study published in Science strongly implies that the search for life on Mars should continue as a matter of urgency for NASA. An accompanying article authored by Utrecht University astrobiologist Inge Loes ten Kate of the Netherlands. with the study states “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,”
The main drive of the study concerns the discovery of excess methane stored in the planet’s landscape. Kirsten Siebach, a Rice University geologist stated “The big takeaway is that we can find evidence. We can find organic matter preserved in mudstones that are more than 3 billion years old,” Siebach said. “And we see releases of gas today that could be related to life in the subsurface or at the very least are probably related to warm water or environments where Earth life would be happy living.”
Methane on Earth is strongly related to the functioning of life, so such a discovery is hugely important and may indicate a new era of space research and a new understanding of our place in the universe. Caution should be advised at this stage, the detected methane may yet result from a hitherto unknown source. But the prospects of discovering we are not, or were not, alone in the universe just increased significantly.
The breakthrough comes as another Curiosity-related study finds organic molecules stored in rock in an extremely similar way to how it is stored it geological material on earth.
Scisco media will bring you more on this subject as it develops.