NASA’s space boffins were excited to reveal not one but two monumental discoveries during a live press conference on Thursday.
The US space agency presented evidence of ancient organic material and atmospheric methane – two major clues in the search for extraterrestrial life.
The organic molecules were unearthed by NASA’s remote Curiosity rover after digging into three billion-year-old rock near the surface.
Trace amounts of carbon found in the prehistoric rock were 100 times greater than any prior discovery of organic carbon on Mars’ surface.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, praised the findings and said he is positive NASA’s search for alien life is headed in the right direction.
The space expert said: “With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life.
“I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”
But the discovery of organic material does not instantly prove Mars was once abundant with life.
In fact while organic molecules containing traces of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and other elements are associated with life, these elements are also created by non-biological processes in space.
Dr Jen Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, doused the flames of excitement when she stressed scientists are yet to discover the molecules’ origin.
She said: “Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules.
“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.”
But there is hope. Scientific data collected from a dried up water lake inside Gale Crater on Mars suggests the planet once held a climate where water could exist.
The data tells NASA Mars had all the right conditions for the building blocks of life to develop before the Red Planet lost most of its atmosphere.
Dr Eigenbrode said: “The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter.
“Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimetres of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.”
Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said the space agency is now on the “right track” in the search for life on Mars.
The results of the findings are published in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.