On its endless quest for evidence of water, Curiosity has stumbled upon new data that suggests life on Mars may exist right now. As in, NOW. The brave rover this week detected a “tenfold spike in methane” in the atmosphere, along with other organic materials in a rock-powder sample Curiosity recently drilled. The methane part is important because the organic chemical often comes from microbes—at least on Earth—which are responsible for expelling gas into the atmosphere.
Curiosity has made a lot of key findings that suggest life may have existed on the Red Planet way back when, but the newest data has scientists hopeful of more immediate life. However, we can’t be sure the methane source is biological, which means it could merely be the result of non-biological factors. “There are many possible sources,” admitted Sushil Atreya, who is on the Curiosity rover science team.
Organic molecules, which contain carbon and usually hydrogen, are chemical building blocks of life, although they can exist without the presence of life, NASA wrote. Curiosity’s findings from analyzing samples of atmosphere and rock powder do not reveal whether Mars has ever harbored living microbes, but the findings do shed light on a chemically active modern Mars and on favorable conditions for life on ancient Mars.
Scientists believe the organic carbon in a rock on Mars holds “promise,” and could tell us about Earth-Mars differences. In particular, the data could shed light on Gale Crater, which is a huge area of focus for NASA. Going forward, Curiosity will focus on finding other rocks that have more complex organic compounds.
“It’s really interesting that our measurements from Curiosity go gases extracted from ancient rocks can tell us about loss of water from Mars,” said Paul Mahaffy, SAM principal investigator of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.