'Building blocks' for life discovered in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars

'Building blocks' for life discovered in 3-billion-year-old organic matter on Mars
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NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has discovered molecules that scientists consider to be the "building blocks" of life, the aerospace agency announced Thursday.

NASA scientists announced at a press conference that soil samples analyzed from Mars's Gale Crater — an area that appears to be a dry lake bed — revealed traces of organic molecules that have been preserved on the red planet's surface for billions of years, USA Today reported.

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Researchers said the findings correspond with traces of methane — a chemical produced by some organic life forms — that the rover also found in the planet's atmosphere. Scientists described the particles as "complex carbon chains," but cautioned that the findings could be the result of natural geological phenomenon.

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.

Utrecht University scientist Inge Loes ten Kate asserted in an accompanying article that the findings proved that the crater was habitable for life billions of years ago.

"The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars," Kate said. "Curiosity has shown that Gale Crater was habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, with conditions comparable to those on the early Earth, where life evolved around that time."

Launched in 2011, the Curiosity rover and its $2.5 billion worth of scientific equipment were sent to Mars with the intent of exploring and analyzing Gale Crater. With its 17 cameras and a laser capable of vaporizing rock, Curiosity is NASA's most advanced Mars rover to date. 

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life," NASA science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen told USA Today. "I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”