Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist at Goddard, revealed the first news behind all the hype was the discovery of organic molecules from an ancient lake bed. At their most basic, organic molecules are those made of carbon and hydrogen atoms, though they can have other atoms (such as oxygen or sulfur) as well. That's not to say there are no non-biological sources, but on our world they're swamped by cow farts and belching bacteria. The rover mission has achieved that goal, showing that its landing site, the floor of a huge crater called Gale, harbored a potentially habitable lake-and-stream system long ago.
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. "If you can do this on Mars, imagine what you can do with analytical facilities available to us on Earth", he says. "We now have really good reasons to look a whole lot harder", he says.
So the rover was directed to drive about 4 miles away to the base of Mt. Pictured, a computer-generated view depicting part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light. This variation was detected by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.
For the previous mud stone samples that had produced the chlorinated molecules, scientists had heated the powdered rock to 200 degrees Celsius.
At that temperature, "they can be certain that these gases are not a result of leaking reagent or reaction with perchlorate", Ten Kate wrote.
The compounds might have come from a meteorite, or from geological formations akin to coal and black shale on Earth, or some form of life, Eigenbrode said.
Some geologists devote their careers to seeking organic inclusions in Earth rocks, hoping to find ancient fossils of terrestrial life.
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And while methane had previously been found in Mars' atmosphere in "large, unpredictable plumes", NASA said it has now found methane levels that follow seasonal trend changes with more methane appearing in warm summer months before dropping in the winter.
"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space". The findings add to the body of evidence suggesting Mars may once have been able to sustain life. "And it makes us more confident that if biomarkers" - or direct evidence of biologic activity - "are there, we might find them".
NASA regularly releases news, scientific papers, and new theories related to Mars, and typically it's with very little fanfare. What's not yet clear is whether or not the methane is, indeed, biological. A likely candidate: "serpentinization", where water and minerals react, releasing methane. That's a huge change, completely unexpected. What do we stand to gain from these missions anyway?
Their precise source is still a mystery.
Webster and his colleagues suspect that the methane comes from deep underground, and temperature swings on Mars's surface throttle its flow upward. "We can not distinguish that".
"People have been wondering about whether there might be life on Mars forever and finally ... they've done all the tests they've modified everything to be able to show that in fact there's organic matter on Mars".