On June 7th, 2018, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) made several announcements regarding discoveries made by the Curiosity rover. The rover found organic matter on Mars in soil samples taken from 3 billion-year-old mudstone in the Gale crater. The rover also detected methane in the Martian atmosphere.
The search for life on other planets has always been a focus for NASA. A lot may initially think of green aliens; however, “alien life” can come in several different forms.
“Organic compounds are fundamental to our search for life,” said Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at Goddard.
What the rover found isn’t exactly evidence of life outside of our planet, but it one of the building blocks for life itself, be it a record detailing ancient life, a food source for life, or something that exists in the place of life.
Jen Eigenbrode, research scientist at Goddard, explained that the organic molecules “could have come from things that are non-biological.”
However, these molecules could have the ability to provide a vital guide for scientists in their search for life on Mars.
“All life that we know of is based on organic molecules,” Eigenbrode explained. “There’s a whole suite of chemical and physical things that we could measure to find signatures of life.”
The Curiosity rover has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variation of methane on Mars—indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water.
Curiosity gathered mudstone samples and gradually heated them to 860°C, using gas chromatography / mass spectrometry to study the gases produced. It was able to identify a variety of molecules, including thiophene, methylthiophenes, and methanethiol, which are probably fragments from larger organic macromolecules in the sediment. These organic deposits could be like kerogen, the fossilized organic matter found in sedimentary rocks on Earth that contains a collection of waxy hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
The Curiosity rover has also previously detected some important scientific results. In 2013, for example, analysis of a rock sample collected by the vehicle showed that ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. In 2014 the rover measured a tenfold spike in methane, an organic chemical, in the atmosphere around it. At that time, the robotic laboratory also detected other organic molecules in a rock-powder sample collected by its drill.
This new discovery by Curiosity is just one small step for NASA and their exploration of the Red Giant.
In the 2030s, NASA intends to send a manned mission to Mars. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could have visited Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet.
NASA isn’t the only organization who is in the race to Mars. SpaceX, a private space company, is also working to visit the Red Giant. Speaking at the South by Southwest festival earlier this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that he expects to see test flights of the firm’s Mars spacecraft next year.
Mars might be 54.6 million kilometers away from Earth, but visiting it might seem closer than we think.