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He said he was confident about NASA's ongoing and planned missions on the Red Planet. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated the red planet - and still might. "The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time". Curiosity has detected large organic molecules inside ancient Martian rocks, as well as methane cycles now active on the planet. Methane previously had been detected in Mars' atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. There was also mention of some "mysterious" methane fluctuations in Mars' atmosphere, but I'm more concerned with the ancient organic stuff, which, it should be noted, does not mean ancient living stuff.

This suggests the lake inside the Gale Crate once had all necessary ingredients to support life, even chemical building blocks, and energy sources.

"When you work with something as insane as a rover on Mars, with the most complex instrument ever sent to space, it seems like we're doing what may have been perceived earlier as impossible", says lead author Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biogeochemist at NASA Goddard. Combined with high-energy ultraviolet light and cosmic rays streaming in from space, perchlorates would destroy any organic material on the surface, leaving little to be seen by carbon-seeking landers and rovers.

Methane, the simplest organic molecule, ranges "between 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion, peaking near the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere", said the report, based on three years of data.

The Curiosity rover discovered organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at the Gale Crater.

Chris Webster, senior research fellow, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, discussed previous research that had observed methane spikes that seemed irregular.

Over five years, Curiosity has used its Tunable Laser Spectrometer to measure methane in the atmosphere at the Gale crater.

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"There's three possible sources for the organic material", said astrobiologist Jennifer Eigenbrode of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The methane signal has been observed for almost 3 Martian years (nearly 6 Earth years), peaking each summer.

But NASA managers say the new discoveries show the agency's Mars exploration plans are on the right track. The rover spotted the chemical signature in samples take from sedimentary rocks the formed some 3 billion years ago.

And the seasonal methane pulse is perhaps, maybe, possibly - but far, far from certainly - the sort of signal Curiosity might detect if life did form back then and was still around somewhere, ten Kate said.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample - fragments of larger organic molecules that don't vaporize easily.

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

Curiosity has been drilling since 2013. And NASA's scheduled Mars 2020 rover is slated to package soil samples for future missions to pick up and return to Earth. What the study has done, though, is to propel the search for life on Mars higher up the list of global space exploration priorities - giving space agencies ammunition to argue for a coordinated programme of missions to explore the Red Planet.


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