The Mars Curiosity rover is sniffing methane in the Martian air but NASA researchers suspect that the distinctive gas-often a sign of life on Earth-may be leaking from buried deposits and not from microbes living on the Red Planet today, space agency scientists said Thursday. The rover has not found evidence of life itself.
The Curiosity rover, which has travelled 19.3 km since it landed in the Gale crater almost 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. NASA calls the Curiosity the "largest and most capable" rover ever to make contact with Mars. "Biological, geological and meteoritic sources are all possible", they wrote.
Organic molecules are the building blocks of life.
Curiosity's upgraded replacement, the Mars 2020 rover, is scheduled to land in early 2021 and start gathering more soil samples. In a companion article, an outside expert describes the findings as "breakthroughs in astrobiology".
Scientists, however, noted that the evidence of ancient life is far from conclusive because methane - released from the planet's surface - and organic molecules can also be created from chemical reactions without life being present.
Kirsten Siebach, a Rice University geologist who also was not involved in the studies, is equally excited.
Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said the space agency is now on the "right track" in the search for life on Mars.
Regardless, the detection is a technical achievement, said Williford, because it demonstrates that organic molecules can persist near Mars's surface for billions of years.
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Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years.
The amount of methane peaked at the end of summer in the northern hemisphere at about 2.7 times the level of the lowest seasonal amount.
"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 from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead author of the paper. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference". The diameter is slightly smaller than a USA dime. They therefore suggest that methane could be trapped at depth, gradually seeping to the surface. The gas creeps from below the surface up to be released into the Mars atmosphere via riverbeds, cracks, and crevices in the surface of the planet.
The revelations build on a similar announcement made by NASA in 2014, where scientists confirmed that they had discovered chlorinated molecules on the planet for the first time.
Mars's Gale Crater, where Curiosity has been trolling around for the past six years, is a particularly interesting place to look for those molecules. They could even have been transported from elsewhere in the solar system. The key samples in the latest findings came from a spot 6.4 kilometres away.
Webster explained that this is an exciting discovery because 99 percent of methane produced on earth has a biological origin, giving examples of rice paddies and termites.
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.
"I don't believe there's life on Mars at the present", Freeman says, because Mars is very dry, very cold and lacks much of an atmosphere.