NASA finds ancient organic material, mysterious methane on Mars

June 7, 2018 by Sean Potter, NASA
This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA's Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet. While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet's surface and subsurface.

The new findings – "tough" organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere – appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life. 

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. "I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet."

"Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules," said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers. "Whether it holds a record of , was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes."

This illustration shows the ways in which methane from the subsurface might find its way to thesurface where its uptake and release could produce a large seasonal variation in the atmosphereas observed by Curiosity. Potential methane sources include methanogenesis, UV degradation oforganics, or water-rock chemistry; and its losses include atmospheric photochemistry and surfacereactions. Seasons refer to the northern hemisphere. The plotted data is from Curiosity's TLSSAMinstrument, and the curved line through the data is to aid the eye. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the date, issue of Science, published by AAAS. The paper, by C.R. Webster at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, and colleagues was titled, "Background levels of methane in Mars' atmosphere show strong seasonal variations." Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources. 

"The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter," said Eigenbrode. "Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper."

Seasonal Methane Releases

In the second paper, scientists describe the discovery of seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere over the course of nearly three Mars years, which is almost six Earth years. This variation was detected by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. 

Curiosity has discovered ancient organic molecules in Gale Crater using its SAM instrument. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.

"This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it," said Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper. "This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal 'breathing.'" 

Finding Organic Molecules

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. The rock samples were analyzed by SAM, which uses an oven to heat the samples (in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, or 500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules from the powdered rock.

The small hydrocarbons discovered on Mars are thought to be part of larger macromolecules. Credit: NASA

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample – fragments of larger organic molecules that don't vaporize easily. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make car tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more. This is close to the amount observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times greater than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars' surface. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.

In 2013, SAM detected some containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. This new discovery builds on the inventory of detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA's Mars 2020 rover and ESA's (European Space Agency's) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface. 

Intake valves on the side of Curiosity allow SAM to ingest Martian air for analysis. Credit: NASA

These results also inform scientists' decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars. 

"Are there signs of on Mars?" said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters. "We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track."

This work was funded by NASA's Mars Exploration Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. Goddard provided the SAM instrument. JPL built the rover and manages the project for SMD.

Explore further: Scientists shrink chemistry lab to seek evidence of life on Mars

More information: C.R. Webster el al., "Background levels of methane in Mars' atmosphere show strong seasonal variations," Science (2018). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aaq0131

J.L. Eigenbrode el al., "Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars," Science (2018). science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aas9185

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rrwillsj
2 / 5 (6) Jun 07, 2018
"....While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life....."

A sensible statement. That a lot more evidence needs to be collected, analyzed, evaluated, verified BEFORE jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions. With embarrassing, career-killing statements that will need to be retracted when disproven.

The good news I take away from the accomplishments by the probes (& of course the the Human teams involved) to Mars is: That Mars is not inimical to robots or drones. Even the primitive models we have sent seem to do well enough for our purposes.

Now all we have to do? Is achieve a consensus for what our purposes actually are. And maybe should be?

ForFreeMinds
2 / 5 (4) Jun 07, 2018
Does anyone know how Curiosity took a self portrait, where one cannot see how the camera is attached to it (except perhaps its shadow)? Was the arm holding the camera digitally removed?
Spacebaby2001
3.9 / 5 (7) Jun 07, 2018
Does anyone know how Curiosity took a self portrait, where one cannot see how the camera is attached to it (except perhaps its shadow)? Was the arm holding the camera digitally removed?


It's a composite image. You could say the arm was digitally omitted. I can only assume the real scientists get a kick out of feeding the ever observant conspiracy theorists.

source:
https://www.jpl.n...?id=1171
andyf
4.5 / 5 (8) Jun 07, 2018
Does anyone know how Curiosity took a self portrait, where one cannot see how the camera is attached to it ?


Yes.

The complete image is a mosaic (kinda like a patch-work quilt) of many smaller images all taken from the same position. The arm holding the camera can be manoeuvred so that it is out of the frame for each of the individual images, even though the camera ends up in the same position for all of the shots.

Stitch all the shots together and you get a mosaic without the camera arm in the completed image.
Mark Thomas
4.5 / 5 (8) Jun 07, 2018
Mars is different, but if these chemicals were all found together on Earth, my guess is the odds of there being a biological origin are very high.

Thiophene (C4H4S) - "The benzene ring of a biologically active compound may often be replaced by a thiophene"

2-methylthiophenes (C5H6S) - "found in animal foods."

3-methylthiophenes (C5H6S) - "found in coffee products"

Methanethiol (CH4S) - "a natural substance . . . disposed of through animal feces"

methanethiol (CH4S) - "In surface seawater, methanethiol is the primary breakdown product of the algal metabolite dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP)"

dimethylsulfide (C2H6S) - "DMS originates primarily from DMSP, a major secondary metabolite in some marine algae." "Bacteria in environments both with and without oxygen can also convert methanethiol to dimethyl sulfide (DMS)"

https://en.wikipe...anethiol

benzothiophene (C8H6S) - constituent of petroleum
holoman
3 / 5 (2) Jun 07, 2018
Martian Colony using Methane Designed in 2008

https://drive.goo...J2og314w

https://thomasins...out.html
ZoeBell
Jun 07, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Iochroma
1 / 5 (3) Jun 07, 2018
Again, they mention solar radiation (and interstellar radiation, by extension); the surface of Mars is no place for humans. Even the long trip to the planet could result in fatal doses of radiation.
freehit
1 / 5 (1) Jun 07, 2018
Could the seasonal variation be due to the methane being captured and released in a new type (low pressure) of methalhydrate* at the poles? Sounds like it's "melting" out of the water ice in summer and refreezing back in during winter. If true, is >that where the biological processes are taking place? *Not sure if that's the correct name for it, (water ice filled with methane).
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 07, 2018
So. Basis building blocks in the basement should mean that the fossils are further up the mountain.

GET THERE.

Quit driving around in circles.

Perhaps some real evidence will be found in the clay formation, the next one to be crossed.
Sol88
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 07, 2018
Any methane detected in/on/around Comets?

oh never mind

https://nssdc.gsf...6_05.txt
Whatmaze
1 / 5 (5) Jun 07, 2018
METHANE? METHANE? SO WHAT? What are the simplest carbon compounds? Methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), H2CO3 (bicarbonate). Build the list from there. I don't see how this qualifies as a significant discovery. Please enlighten me!
jonesdave
3.9 / 5 (11) Jun 07, 2018
METHANE? METHANE? SO WHAT? What are the simplest carbon compounds? Methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), H2CO3 (bicarbonate). Build the list from there. I don't see how this qualifies as a significant discovery. Please enlighten me!


Methane breaks down rather quickly. Therefore there must be a constant supply of it. One option is geological processes. Which would be an interesting finding. The other option is that it is created by lifeforms. Which would also be mildly interesting.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
4.2 / 5 (5) Jun 08, 2018
Dr. Gilbert V. Levin would be happy to find this out.

http://www.gillev...mars.htm
Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (7) Jun 08, 2018
The reality is that 3 billion year old rock on the surface, without plate tectonics or volcanism to have brought it up, means Mars was, is and will always be lifeless.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
4.6 / 5 (10) Jun 08, 2018
The reality is that 3 billion year old rock on the surface, without plate tectonics or volcanism to have brought it up, means Mars was, is and will always be lifeless.


Are you absolutely certain of that??

https://en.wikipe..._of_Mars
Osiris1
5 / 5 (3) Jun 08, 2018
Notice the palpable fear among commenters about 'career killing statements. However, given the sometimes limited vocabulary, predilection toward verbal violence, and mendacity, and two dimensional thinking often prevalent here among more than a few, this writer doubts many significant careers will ever be jeopardized here.

We ARE going to go there someday, and it would be far safer to err on the side of optimism than pessimism or misplaced terracentricism or terran chauvinism. If we DO run into life on Mars or more likely underground the surface of Mars, that life would most likely be microbial, although small wormlike forms likely too but who knows' We may even find underground oceans or lakes in the north or at the bottom of the Great Canyon, 'El Valle'.

That life may find us to be just .....deeelicious! Rather not find bad news late, to quote the late Henry Morgan. Nowhere in the Bible is there a specific phrase that says that we are unique.
Spacebaby2001
5 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2018
The reality is that 3 billion year old rock on the surface, without plate tectonics or volcanism to have brought it up, means Mars was, is and will always be lifeless.


The reality is that your statements are awkwardly arrogant and entitled thoughts that you present as unalterable fact. The first part of your statement might very well be correct, but you sure as hell can't be certain of that with the research and data available.

"will always be lifeless" could be considered as already wrong just by the fact that the planet is spotted with the inorganic remote sensing organs of life. Just be happy for once and enjoy the adventure and discovery, it's not that hard.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (6) Jun 08, 2018
Happy! Happy! Happy! Goddamn it! Or Else!

Cause that recklessly feckless spontaneity has worked so well for exploration & colonization in the past.

Oh wait. No it didn't.

If you'd stop taking fortunetelling advice from comicbooks & F/X'd video? To apply yourself to the learning from the successes of the Congregationalist Great Migration & the Mormon Migration? There may be some small possibility of achieving space colonization.

However, too many of you. If given the choice between my modestly methodical constructive advice of what needs to be planned & organized for humans to realistically attempt to colonize off Earth?

Or retain your emotional attachment to the comicbooks? I'm pretty sure I'll be down voted.

Instead of sitting around playing videogames? Waiting for someone else to invent the magical devices to carry you off to fairytale land in the sky?

What are you doing to construct the future you want? Have you made any effort to organize?
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 08, 2018
The complete image is a mosaic

Here's an image (from the cover of the Guardian) where you can see what the mosaic looks like
https://www.thegu...bstances
Spacebaby2001
3 / 5 (4) Jun 08, 2018
@rrwillsj Funny you make such presumptions. I'm an architect with a focus in sustainability and urban design working toward my license (well aware of the oxymoron our species' current habits make of those foci). So to answer your question I'm literally taking steps to designing and construct of the future I want.

Why do you presume basement dwelling parasites because some one rejects an nonconstructive arrogant attitude toward the people who actually are doing the science? I'm not qualified nor in a position to dictate policy regarding how we explore the solar system. That is their job and from my perspective they are succeeding. If you think you could do better I encourage you to get involved and do better.

They aren't comic books, but if you haven't already I encourage you read Aurora and 2312 by K.S. Robinson. Excellent books that ponder the "should we" of human colonization/tech, and I think he agrees with you, although he expresses his op. in a much more productive manner.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 08, 2018
If you'd stop taking fortunetelling advice from comicbooks & F/X'd video? To apply yourself to the learning from the successes of the Congregationalist Great Migration & the Mormon Migration? There may be some small possibility of achieving space colonization
Uh who you talkin to willis?
However, too many of you. If given the choice between my modestly methodical constructive advice of what needs to be planned & organized for humans to realistically attempt to colonize off Earth?
Whata fruit.
Or retain your emotional attachment to the comicbooks? I'm pretty sure I'll be down voted
Guarantee it.

"Those of us who have had experiences with psychopaths know that the language of the psychopath is two-dimensional. They are, as someone once said, as "deep as a thimble.""

"...their frequent use of contradictory and logically inconsistent statements that usually escape detection."
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
4.2 / 5 (5) Jun 08, 2018
However, too many of you. If given the choice between my modestly methodical constructive advice of what needs to be planned & organized for humans to realistically attempt to colonize off Earth?

says rrwillsj

Sad. Your 'modestly methodical constructive advice' is wasted in the Comments section of this website. IF you truly believe that your IDEAS are great and have merit, then you may want to contact JPL, Caltech, the Departments of Astrobiology and Engineering at NASA, ESA and other institutions such as University of Arizona and Arizona State University in the US.

You are only making a mockery of yourself by painting other commenters with such a broad brush, and you are attracting the wrong kind of attention to your ideas. It is the articles and the events described that are of utmost importance. This site is full of Pseudoscientists as most science sites are. The REAL scientists are out making the discoveries. Why not join them?
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
4.3 / 5 (6) Jun 08, 2018
Now and then, a REAL Scientist/Engineer/Researcher/University Professor will pop into the site, read the article(s) and then make some comments on the subject matter. I consider them as visiting dignitaries. But many, if not most, leave Phys.org with a negative opinion of the comments and their writers. And that also reflects poorly on the website itself and its administers/owners.

As we speak, the Scientists/Engineers/Researchers at NASA and other institutions of science and learning are ALL organising and making the best possible plans for present and future space programs. Whether there is life on Mars or not, it is humankind's destiny to populate the planet and dominate it wisely.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (5) Jun 08, 2018
So, the disagreements with my arguments is that I am asking you to do something for yourself? Something you want to have happen but seem to expect other people to do the actual work?

I am not the one who believes that it is possible for biological life to thrive off of Earth, beyond the mesosphere.

I just find it tedious you all constantly repeating your obsession with space colonization as if saying it makes it real. And yet making no effort to accomplish such an achievement.

So I gave you some suggestions on how you could kickstart your dreams into reality.

It is true I did so for selfish reasons. You are all annoying me with your twaddle.

Figured if I gave you a goose, you'd jump to it and stop your endless whining.

Nobody is preventing you from being inventive or constructive. There have been several articles on this site about small crowd-sourced, space projects by people who didn't need me to tell them what they want to do.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
4 / 5 (4) Jun 08, 2018
oh for Pete's sake!!! sheeesh
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 09, 2018
Hey willis
I am not the one who believes that it is possible for biological life to thrive off of Earth, beyond the mesosphere

"Inhabitants of the space station put special pads on the ship's hull and carried out "Test" and "Biorisk" experiments.

"They left the pads up for several years, hoping to find out how material is affected by conditions in space.

"Microorganisms from Madagascar and Russia were discovered to have risen up from the Earth's surface into space, where they had attached onto the side of the space station.

"The ISS is stationed 20km above the Earth's surface, and scientists have called the strange phenomenon the "ionosphere lift".

"Experts were astounded that the bacteria was able to survive in the vacuum of space, where temperatures range from -150C to 150C."

-De ionosphere is above de uh mesosphere you dig?

Keep pretending you arent making shit up.
Mayday
5 / 5 (3) Jun 09, 2018
I believe that we will go to Mars. And the we will finally get over our hyper-limiting obsession with most planet's dull surfaces and get below the surface to where the action is. Can you imagine the lava tubes and cavern structures waiting to be explored? And occupied? I can.
Mayday
not rated yet Jun 09, 2018
Can't edit on iPad. Apologies for typo: the = that.
EyeNStein
5 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2018
Hopefully a future probe will include instruments capable of solvent-chromatography and stereo-isomeric chemistry rather than just pyrolyzing samples and destroying much of the evidence.
Chirality would be a strong indicator of life processes: stereo-isomers of carbs and amino acids especially.

https://en.wikipe...#Biology
rrwillsj
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 10, 2018
I have been wondering why I feel so emotional about the goofy attitudes of the wanna-be-a-conquistador-in-outer-space crowd.

Parsing through my reasoning. I realized that I don't give a rats ass as to the miserable deaths you will inflict on yourselves. Good riddance!

That leads to the realization that you will drag your wives and children into grisly horror. Because your egos deny that you could possibly ever be wrong or mistaken about anything. That was the cause of my emotional upset.

Then I continued exploring the problem with your ignorance of history and exploration. Oh, you parrot a few phrases "In 1492 on an ocean blue" and "There's gold in them there hills!"

However you carefully avoid considering the long history of failure and you refuse to learn from successful migrations.

Dreaming of being the next Cortez or Pizarro brother. You omit that their "success" resulted in the destruction of the Spanish Empire that launched them upon the Americas.
rrwillsj
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 10, 2018
Oh dear, otto, otto, otto! You really don't think through your arguments to their inexorable consequences.

First, I define the Van Allen Belt as the boundary for survival of biology off Earth.

However, accepting your belief that living organisms could survive past the VAB. Without bothering with the pesky need for evidence?

Your argument for such a possibility actually demolishes the claim that organic material found on Mars is of indigenous origin.

Instead, you are advocating a strong probability that the organic materials discovered so far? Are of Earth origin!

Carried to Mars by the survey probes. And what has been found on site are contaminants from the landers and surveyors.

Now that sounds like a pretty reasonable guess to me.

Thanks, otto. For setting us all straight.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jun 10, 2018
willis says
First, I define the Van Allen Belt as the boundary for survival of biology off Earth
-after he said
I am not the one who believes that it is possible for biological life to thrive off of Earth, beyond the mesosphere
...? The VAB is above the mesosphere. No?

Willis then says
the claim that organic material found on Mars is of indigenous origin... Instead, you are advocating a strong probability that the organic materials discovered so far? Are of Earth origin!
The excerpt said that this stuff was found on the ISS. The International Space Station. It is in orbit around earth and is nowheres near mars.

Youre a drug addict arent you?
Thanks, otto. For setting us all straight
I would guess that setting you straight would require rehab.

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