A NASA robot has explored more building blocks for life on Mars — the most complex organic matter yet — from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists said on Thursday.
The unmanned Curiosity rover has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variations of methane on Mars, indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water.
While not direct evidence of life, the compounds drilled from Mars’ Gale Crater are the most diverse array ever taken from the surface of the planet since the robotic vehicle landed in 2012, experts say.
“This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars,” said the lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.
“And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it,” she told.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has previously found organic matter on Mars. A smaller discovery was announced in 2014.
“This is the first really trusted detection,” co-author Sanjeev Gupta, a professor of Earth science at Imperial College London, told.
“What this new study is showing in some detail is the discovery of complex and diverse organic compounds in the sediments. That doesn’t mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life,” he added.
“This is the first time we have detected such a diverse array of these sorts of things.”