Scientists Have Made A Major Discovery In The Search For Life On Mars

Samples were collected from the Mojave Hills site, pictured. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thanks to this discovery, we now know that Mars once had all of the basic ingredients we know life needs. This will give scientists planning future missions confidence that they are on the right track in the search for life.

It poses another question though, specifically if life did not arise. If Mars had all the same conditions as Earth, including water and organics, then why did life spring up on our planet but not on our neighbor?

“If there’s no life on Mars, even though conditions are so similar, what made Earth so special?” Inge Loes ten Kate from Utrecht University, who was not involved in either study, told IFLScience.

Curiosity will not be able to answer this question definitively. But future missions may very well be able to give us a better picture, including ESA’s ExoMars rover in 2020. This will be able to drill up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) under the surface, 40 times further than Curiosity, to depths where material is more shielded from radiation.

At these depths, it may be possible to find even more organic compounds like this. But it will probably not be until we actually return Mars rocks to Earth, as NASA is planning in the 2020s, that we will really be able to answer if life arose on the Red Planet.

“This discovery gives us confidence that we’re not wasting our time,” said Sanjeev.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will leave samples on Mars for an uncrewed mission to one day return them to Earth. NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the second paper also released today, researchers led by Christopher Webster from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) measured methane levels on Mars. They used an instrument on Curiosity called the Tunable Laser Spectrometer over five years to make the discovery.

The most interesting finding is that methane levels on Mars seem to change with the seasons. In the winter levels drop down to about 0.2 parts per billion, but in the summer they raise three-fold to 0.6 parts per billion. It might sound small, but this rise is hugely important.

“Very few gases on Earth change by a factor of three,” Webster told IFLScience. “So this huge change allows us to rule out some things and causes.”

This is exciting for another ESA mission, one that’s currently in orbit around Mars, called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Scientists are using this spacecraft to study gases in the atmosphere of Mars and pinpoint some of the sources of them on the surface.

ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter (illustrated) will look more closely for methane. ESA/D. Ducros

It’s thought this methane has been trapped in reservoirs underground, and over the summer as temperatures increase, it is released from the surface into the air. Where this methane came from isn’t clear, and it may simply be the result of geological processes on Mars.

But one other source of methane is, of course, life. Coupled with the first paper, it paints a tantalizing picture of what might be happening on Mars. And if you let your mind wander, things certainly do get a bit interesting.

“You can hypothesize that there might have been early life, and the organics might have been the remnants from that, and those organics might have produced methane, and that methane is being stored in the surface of Mars,” said Kate.

It will be years before we truly know if that might have been the case. But this latest discovery tells us that, for all the billions of dollars we’ve spent exploring Mars, it just might be hiding the answer to the question we’ve wanted to know all along: Are we alone, and if so, why?

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