The rover, which has allowed scientists to explore whether Mars ever boasted conditions conducive to life, in 2014 made the first definitive detection of organic molecules, also in Gale crater rock formed from ancient lake sediment - but it was a much more limited set of compounds. "With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said in a news release. This latest discovery adds evidence that Mars may have been capable of supporting life in its ancient past, though there's still no evidence that life had actually existed on the Red Planet.
This is the first time we've seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it. Samples of ancient mudstone yielded a diversity of organic molecules in SAM's oven-and in a separate study, five years' worth of atmospheric samples gathered by SAM tracked fluctuating levels of methane that peaked in the Martian summer. That's not to say there are no non-biological sources, but on our world they're swamped by cow farts and belching bacteria.
Data from the plucky rover Curiosity and the Trace Gas Orbiter high above the planet have spotted it in puffs, suggesting a dynamic process is churning it out parts per billion. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make auto tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode. Together, the researchers believe these findings to be "breakthroughs in astrobiology". Meteorites are constant pummeling Mars, and many of them contain carbon.
"The detective work they did is worthy of Sherlock Holmes", said Katherine Freeman, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved with the research. She said the discoveries break down some of the strongest arguments put forward by life-on-Mars skeptics, herself included.
"The big takeaway is that we can find evidence". Over the intervening years, fluid flowing thought it would have initiated chemical reactions that could have destroyed the organic matter - the material discovered may in fact be fragments from bigger molecules.
The Mars of today is a barren and inhospitable place for living things, but scientists think it may have been very different in the past. The methane could even be trapped in water-based crystals beneath the surface. The changes were observed over three Martian years, which are equivalent to almost half a dozen Earth years.
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"Not only have we got this wonderful repeatability, but the seasonal cycle changes by a factor of three". "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference".
But National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists emphasized there could be nonbiological explanations for both discoveries made by the Curiosity rover at a site called Gale crater, leaving the issue of Martian life a tantalizing but unanswered question. The diameter is slightly smaller than a US dime. The gas creeps from below the surface up to be released into the Mars atmosphere via riverbeds, cracks, and crevices in the surface of the planet.
To determine whether the methane is biological, Webster said, scientists can weigh the kinds of carbon atoms it contains (life prefers the lighter versions).
Using Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars instrument - which heats soil and rock samples to examine their contents - astrobiologist Jennifer Eigenbrode and her colleagues were able to identify an array of interesting organic molecules: Ring structures known as aromatics, sulfur compounds and long carbon chains. So they looked elsewhere. He and his team also can't distinguish whether this methane is the product of geological or biological activity.