The Gale Crater continues to be a gold mine for NASA’s Curiosity rover. The latest discovery? One of life’s building blocks – methane.

Curiosity measured a sharp increase methane in the atmosphere immediately around the rover. It also detected other organic molecules in a sample collected by the rover’s drill.

The rover ‘sniffed’ Mars atmosphere a dozen times over a 20-month period.

“During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion. Before and after that, readings averaged only one-tenth that level,” read a JPL post.

Sushil Arteya, a member of the Curiosity rover science team, had this to say about the methane discovery.

“This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” Arteya said.

“There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

The NASA image below shows possible sources of the methane.

Mars methane source

The Mars rover also detected different organic molecules in powder drilled from a rock called Cumberland. Scientists believe the organic molecules either formed on Mars or came from meteorites.

These molecules are seen as necessary building blocks for life, but can exist without life.

It took scientists months to figure out if the organic material detected in the Cumberland sample was actually Martian. Some of the organic compounds actually hitched a ride all the way from Earth inside the rover. But, scientists are confident some of the compounds call Mars home.

Curiosity’s discovery is the first conclusive evidence of organic material found on Mars. So, Martians are real? Not quite. The methane and carbon-containing molecules doesn’t prove life existed on Mars. But, Mars could have had the necessary building blocks for life in its past.

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Curiosity’s next move? “Find other rocks on Mount Sharp that might have different and more extensive inventories of organic compounds,” says Curiosity Participating Scientist Roger Summons.

Image credit: NASA

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