‘Building blocks of life’ found on Mars, NASA reveals in new Curiosity rover announcement

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover captured stunning images last week of layered rock formations on the red planet's surface. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory The photos show Martian buttes and mesas, which were formed by erosion and sandstorms. Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada said studying the formations up close helped researchers further understand how sand dunes were buried before becoming "chemically changed by groundwater, exhumed and eroded to form the landscape that we see today.”

NASA scientists hosted a live discussion Thursday, announcing new discoveries from its car-sized Mars Curiosity rover, which first launched in 2011.

The live event, which aired on NASA Television at 2 p.m., revealed that scientists found organic matter preserved on Mars — elements considered "building blocks of life" — suggesting the planet was once home to life.

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According to NASA, the rover used innovative drilling methods to uncover molecules of carbon and hydrogen. The molecules may also include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements commonly associated with life.

Scientists noted such organic molecules can also be created by non-biological processes “and are not necessarily indicators of life.”

Whether the source of the molecules existed in the absence of life or had food for life, "organic matter in Martian molecules holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes," Jen Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the new research set to be published in the journal Science, said in a news release Thursday.

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“The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up,” Curiosity project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, added.

Scientists also found seasonal variations in methane on the planet’s atmosphere over three years (about six Earth years).

Michelle Thaller of NASA’s Planetary Science Division hosted the chat, which featured Paul Mahaffy, director of the agency’s solar system exploration division at the Goddard Space Flight Center; Jet Propulsion Laboratory research fellow Chris Webster; Goddard scientist Jen Eigenbrode and Mars project scientist Vasavada.

The rover, which has been exploring planet Mars since it landed in August 2012, recently analyzed drilled samples on Mars for the first time since October 2016.

“This was no small feat. It represents months and months of work by our team to pull this off,” Jim Erickson, project manager of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, told the agency this week. The Curiosity rover is part of the MSL mission. “JPL's engineers had to improvise a new way for the rover to drill rocks on Mars after a mechanical problem took the drill offline in December 2016.”

The drilling method’s successful improvements mean engineers can efficiently continue studying the 3-mile-high Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, which the rover is currently climbing.

The mission's overall purpose, according to NASA is to determine whether the planet was ever able to support microbial life.

By analyzing rock samples collected by the rover, scientists have identified key chemical ingredients of life on the planet, such as sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.

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The Mars Curiosity rover has also measured spikes in methane, which may be a result of interaction of water and rock.

"I'm confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said in the Thursday news release.

The findings will be published as two papers in the journal Science.

Read the full news release at nasa.gov.

How to watch Thursday’s live NASA discussion: