NASA Reveals Organic Molecules and Seasonal Methane Spikes Found on Mars

NASA researchers referred to the discoveries as a "slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars" and the "key to unlocking the mysteries of Mars."
Loukia Papadopoulos

NASA released a statement this week announcing the space agency would be holding a live discussion on new science results from its Mars Curiosity rover. The event would be aired live on NASA Television.

The public was encouraged to ask questions via social media by using the askNASA hashtag. Curiosity Rover's Twitter featured a cheeky call asking followers to tune it to see its findings.

No aliens found yet

The much-anticipated session started on time today at 2 PM EDT. The host of the session, assistant director of science for communications in NASA’s Planetary Science Division Michelle Thaller, began by clearing up any rumors that the agency would announce that they had found alien life. 

NASA Reveals Organic Molecules and Seasonal Methane Spikes Found on Mars

Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, explained that the objective of the mission was to explore the possibility of sustaining life on Mars. The planetary scientist was happy to announce they did find a habitable environment.

Two important discoveries

Jen Eigenbrode, a research scientist at Goddard, revealed the first news behind all the hype was the discovery of organic molecules from an ancient lake bed. Eigenbrode clarified, however, that the matter was not evidence of life as non-biological entities can create organic molecules.

Chris Webster, senior research fellow, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, discussed previous research that had observed methane spikes that seemed irregular. This led him to the mission's second crucial discovery: the existence of "repeatable identifiable seasonal" patterns of methane concentrations.

NASA Reveals Organic Molecules and Seasonal Methane Spikes Found on Mars
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Webster added that the finding may be the "key to unlocking the mysteries of Mars." The scientists took questions from the public as they revealed increasingly more information about Curiosity's latest developments.

The team estimates the ancient sediments, where the complex organic molecules were found, were actually the remains of a vast lakebed that existed more than 3bn years ago. This is the most compelling evidence yet that this dry planet once held lakes filled with carbon-based compounds capable of sustaining life. 

However, so far, tests were unable to determine how the organic compounds were formed. The molecules could be the remnants of past organisms, the result of chemical reactions with rocks or simply space debris.


Eigenbrode said that regardless where the organic material came from, its existence means that any microbial life found on Mars would have had a food source. On Earth, microorganisms sustain themselves by eating "all sorts of organics."

“The amazing consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars. It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there,” explained Eigenbrode.

Meanwhile, the scientists hope that the newly discovered methane cycle could lead them to understand where the gas originates and if it is a sign of life. Both studies resulting from the mission were published online today in the journal  Science.


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