The United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Thursday announced that its Curiosity rover has found complex organic matter preserved in ancient sediments that formed a vast lake bed on lower Mount Sharp on Mars more than three billion years ago. “While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface,” the space agency said.
The findings do not answer if the compounds are remnants of past organisms, the product of chemical reactions with rocks, or if they were brought to the Red Planet by comets and other celestial debris, The Guardian reported.
If microbial life was present on Mars, it would not have gone hungry. “We know that on Earth microorganisms eat all sorts of organics,” said Jen Eigenbrode, a biochemist at the space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. “It is a valuable food source for them.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the space said that with these findings “Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life”. He said he was confident about NASA’s ongoing and planned missions on the Red Planet.
The Curiosity rover, which has travelled 19.3 km since it landed in the Gale crater nearly six years ago, detected a number of organic molecules in pieces of Martian mudstone it drilled from the lake bed and heated in its oven. When the samples reached 500 to 820 degrees Celsius, Curiosity’s instruments detected a range of vapours that researchers believe are products of larger organic molecules similar to those found in coal, which were trapped in Martian rocks in the distant past.
The researchers published their findings in two studies in the journal Science. In an accompanying article, Inge Loes ten Kate of the Department of Earth Sciences in the Netherlands’ Utrecht University described them as “breakthroughs in astrobiology”.