NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has found carbon-containing compounds in samples drilled out of an ancient rock, the first definitive detection of organics on the surface of Earth’s neighbour planet, scientists said on Tuesday.
The rover also found spurts of methane gas in the atmosphere, a chemical that on Earth is strongly tied to life. Additional studies, which may be beyond the rover’s capabilities, are needed to determine if the organic compounds and/or the methane gas were produced by past or present life on Mars or if they stem from geochemical processes.
“We have had a major discovery. We have found organics on Mars,” Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif, said during a webcast press conference at a science meeting in San Francisco.
“The probability of any of these things being sources (from life) … we just have to respect that it is a possibility,” he added.
Curiosity picked up hints of organics in its earliest chemical analysis of rocks in Gale Crater, a 96-mile (154-km) wide impact basin where the rover made a sky-crane landing in August 2012.