The more we learn about Mars, the more it seems that the red planet once could have harbored life.
Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters said: "With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life".
There is a silver lining: as we mention above and NASA was quick to point out, "while commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life", which is encouraging. Methane is another organic molecule. The compounds discovered on Mars could have been produced by living things, or they could have been food for those living things.
This suggests the lake inside the Gale Crate once had all necessary ingredients to support life, even chemical building blocks, and energy sources. So the Martian traces of organic matter do hint that the basic conditions for life to form were present on Mars at around the same time they existed on Earth. Sulfur may have helped protect the organics even when the rocks were exposed at the surface to radiation and bleach-like substances called perchlorates. The methane concentrations peak near the end of the northern hemisphere's summer, then dwindle in the winter.
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Curiosity found the organic material in sedimentary rocks - mudstone - after drilling into four areas of the Gale crater, an ancient lake bed in which Curiosity originally landed in 2012.
"We were kind of shocked to see that with the seasons, the signal changes by a factor of three, which is a huge change and completely unexpected", says Chris Webster, a rover scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 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 is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars", said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. "The first one would be life, which we don't know about".
Just a couple of weeks ago, NASA announced that Curiosity had successfully drilled a hole using this new technique, and its handlers were excited that the rover could get back to work.
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"It's incredibly exciting, because it shows that Mars is an active planet today", says Caltech planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann, a Mars expert who wasn't involved with the studies. The changes were observed over three Martian years, which are equivalent to almost half a dozen Earth years.
But the scientists can not say what the larger molecules were or how they formed.
The source is still unclear, but it may be stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates, researchers said. And NASA didn't launch another mission to Mars for over a decade. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of global space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet. And Curiosity dug a little deeper beneath the surface, which is blasted with radiation, to see what stories the soil had to tell.
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