More building blocks of life found on Mars

What has Nasa found on Mars? Alien life? Watch announcement livestream here

The organic compounds aren't even the first molecules of their kind found on Mars, though they are the oldest.

The complex organic matter was found buried - and preserved - in ancient, three-billion-year-old sediments, suggesting that the planet could have once been home to life. In chemistry, almost all molecules containing both carbon and hydrogen are organic compounds.

While we know that Mars was habitable in the past, the case demonstrates just how hard it will be to ever prove the existence of past life on its surface.

Almost six years into its survey of a site called Gale Crater on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has delivered what may be the biggest discovery yet in its quest for signs of habitability and life: Organic molecules are abundant in Red Planet rocks, and the simplest organic molecule, methane, seasonally blows through the thin Martian air.

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Still, "we're in a really good position to move forward looking for signs of life", NASA biogeochemist Jennifer Eigenbrode said in a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

"Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes".

This is apparent evidence of a large lake when ancient Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today.

Scientists say three different types of organic molecules were found by the rover after it dug just two inches (5cm) in the planet's surface. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter", Eigenbrode continued. This variation was detected by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. "Short of taking a picture of a fossil in a rock on Mars, [finding life there] is extremely hard to do scientifically", says Chris Webster, a chemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of the methane study. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes.

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"This is all possible because of Curiosity's longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal 'breathing'". The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiopene, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide.

That Mars possesses organic molecules is not surprising. "Organic" carbon can mean biologically derived, but it can also have nonbiological sources. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.

"If we weren't sure, we removed it", Dr. Eigenbrode said.

But Curiosity has discovered "tough" organic molecules from an ancient lake bed inside Gale Crater, showing lakes may have existed for "maybe hundreds or thousands of years". They're considered necessary for life to form, but there are plenty of places with lots of organic compounds but no life. Because that's what happens when you go digging around Mars. Plus, scientists don't know what the original molecules were before Curiosity heated the rocks to take the measurement, Utrecht University scientist Inge Loes ten Kate, who was not involved with the research, told Gizmodo.

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NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover snaps a self-portrait at a site called Vera Rubin Ridge on the Martian surface in February 2018 in this image obtained on June 7, 2018. JPL built the rover and manages the project for SMD.

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