More Hints of Life on Ancient Mars
NASA’s rover on Mars, Curiosity, has found new evidence that the red planet could have supported life at one point. The machine found organic molecules in 3 billion-year-old rocks near the Martian surface. Curiosity also detected seasonal variations of methane in the planet’s atmosphere.
The results came from the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. Associate Professor James Wray is Georgia Tech’s Mars expert and works on the SAM instrument.
I think it would be fair to characterize both results as "incremental" rather than revolutionary, since SAM had reported both ancient organics and atmospheric methane previously. But this is an area of science (potential life on Mars, in the past or even today) where even incremental progress is certainly newsworthy. And for the ancient organics paper in particular, the newly reported compounds are so much more complex and diverse than what was previously reported — they really go a long way toward allaying any prior concerns that some form of “contamination” could explain them away.
I think there's a nice analogy here to our Georgia Tech paper a few years ago, which was not the first to suggest that recurring slope lineae might be salty water flows on modern Mars, but it presented a novel form of evidence for that hypothesis. That was enough to confirm it in many people’s minds.
I am in Switzerland this summer, working with other members of the camera team for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. I’ll be responsible for the few hundred images that the camera will take between July 14 and 28 ... assuming the entire planet isn’t soon obscured by a global dust storm (something that is looking increasingly plausible!).
Meanwhile, two other instruments on the Trace Gas Orbiter are working to give us the next giant leap forward in understanding methane on Mars. Curiosity can sniff the air only within Gale crater, but the Trace Gas Orbiter should be able to map methane globally and determine what other trace gases (if any) accompany it, with the potential to resolve whether its origin is ultimately volcanic or biological.
I am not yet privy to the early results of that campaign, but we should all stay tuned.