back to article NASA finds more stuff suggesting Mars could have hosted life, maybe

NASA’s Curiosity rover has again found evidence that Mars was potentially capable of hosting life. As detailed in a new Science paper, “Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars”, some of the soil samples Curiosity took from the bottom of Gale Crater turned up molecules of “thiophenes, …

  1. revenant Bronze badge

    Suggestive, but nothing more

    Still, it is encouraging. Nicely summed up at the end of the article -

    We are therefore still alone, but our imaginary bacterial buddies are less far-fetched.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

      we need something more compelling. bones would be nice. fossil deposition on mars may be completely different than on earth, however. Most of earth's fossils seem to be from catastrophic burials, like from volcanos and floods and stuff like that. Mars has sedimentary rocks as well, and so there may be similar deposits. Not sure if they had the kinds of dino-killing meteors that Earth had, though, to create really significant fossil layers in the rocks.

      So finding fossils might be really difficult, regardless of the presence of ancient life there.

      1. tfb Silver badge

        Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

        I don't think anyone has any real expectation of anything beyond single-celled organisms, let alone things with bones, which are relatively recent on Earth.

      2. TVU Silver badge

        Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

        "we need something more compelling. bones would be nice. fossil deposition on mars may be completely different than on earth"

        ^ This. What is really required is humans on Mars with deep drilling rigs to dig right down into known ice deposits and lake and sea bed areas to extract long sections of stratified cores to see if there are any live microorganisms still left or if there, for example, something like bacterial microfossils. That is the only way I can see that the life on Mars question will get answered once and for all.

        1. Bernard M. Orwell Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

          "humans on Mars with deep drilling rigs to dig right down into known ice deposits "

          Do you want to awaken dormant sci-fi monsters? Because that's how you awaken dormant sci-fi monsters.

    2. boltar Silver badge

      Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

      "We are therefore still alone,"

      I think we'll always be alone since IMO our civilisation is a one off fluke. For it to arise a number of things

      had to happen:

      1) A planet with an enviroment for suitable chemical reactions to occur

      2) Somehow the chemical reactions lead to a self reproducing system

      3) Single celled life became multicell

      4) Life had to make it out of water onto land (not much chance of fish building a spaceship) which was possibly helped by a large moon causing tides

      5) Humans had to evolve - not a given especially if that asteroid had missed 65 million years ago

      6) The industrial revolution had to occur. Again not a given - if there had been no coal deposits we'd still be riding around on horses with the most advanced machines being windmills.

      7) The computer revolution had to occur.

      I'm sure there are plenty of other important points in history that could have led to a very different outcome, but the point is - life evolving may or may not be rare, but a technological civilisation IMO is.

      1. Alistair Silver badge
        Windows

        Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

        @boltar:

        Space is *really really really* big. You have no idea how big.

        With 100 Billion or more stars in a galaxy and what is looking like trillions of galaxies out there, even things with infinitesimally small probability of occurring start to happen pretty damned often.

        Damn that universal speed limit.

        1. tfb Silver badge

          Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

          If the universe is flat (which it appears to be) then it is indeed really big: it's infinite in fact. Sadly only a finite amount of it is visible to us.

        2. boltar Silver badge

          Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

          "Space is *really really really* big. You have no idea how big."

          Yes I do. However you apparently have no idea how small the probability of all the events leading up to humans becoming a civilisation are.

          "With 100 Billion or more stars in a galaxy and what is looking like trillions of galaxies out there, even things with infinitesimally small probability of occurring start to happen pretty damned often."

          Not necessaily. You can have an infinite number of different scenarious and still not have a one that matches the criteria. Don't belive me? Ok, how many fractions are there between 0 and 1/2? And where in that infinite list is 3/4?

          1. boltar Silver badge

            The fact that I keep getting modded down for stating facts...

            ... shows there's either a lot of wishful thinking optimists on here or you're all a bit thick. Take your pick.

            1. ukgnome
              Alien

              Re: The fact that I keep getting modded down for stating facts...

              Ulla

      2. handleoclast Silver badge

        Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

        @boltar

        1) A planet with an enviroment for suitable chemical reactions to occur

        2) Somehow the chemical reactions lead to a self reproducing system

        There are over 100,000,000,000 galaxies, each of which has an average of 100,000,000,000 stars (those are old figures, the newer ones are bigger but the old ones are easy to remember). Life has to be astronomically improbable not to occur more than once in this universe.

        As it happens, life on this planet happened within around 300,000,000 years of it cooling enough for life to survive. Maybe we were much faster than average, maybe much slower, but the chances are we were somewhere in the middle. The odds look good.

        3) Single celled life became multicell

        That may be the hard step. It required (for our form of life, that may not be universally true) the formation of the eukaryotic cell by the symbiosis of two bacteria (one became the dominant partner, the other became mitochondria or chloroplasts, depending whether animal or plant). Then again, we have other examples of symbioses like these forming, mainly in protozoa which have cilia that are bacteria. So maybe not so hard.

        4) Life had to make it out of water onto land (not much chance of fish building a spaceship) which was possibly helped by a large moon causing tides

        Electronics would be hard. Try making vacuum tubes (valves) or zone-refining semiconductors underwater.

        However, our tides have two components: one from the moon and one from the sun. When they act together the result is a larger "spring tide." The sun alone would still produce tides.

        In any case, tides would result in life ending up in rock pools that either evaporate long before any evolution could happen, or are swept back out to sea by a later tide. Not much opportunity to get to a land form there. Large rivers, however, produce a salinity gradient at their mouths, allowing a transition from salt water to fresh water. From there, a transition to land may be easier.

        So probably not a major problem either.

        5) Humans had to evolve - not a given especially if that asteroid had missed 65 million years ago

        Intelligent life has to evolve. That, again, seems hard. Then again, both elephants and whales are pretty intelligent. As are chimps. So without that asteroid maybe we'd have ended up with intelligent dinosaurs. Or not.

        6) The industrial revolution had to occur. Again not a given - if there had been no coal deposits we'd still be riding around on horses with the most advanced machines being windmills.

        Probably true. Although the limiting factor would probably be refining metal ores without coal or oil.

        7) The computer revolution had to occur.

        We had radio before we had computers. We were pumping out detectable signals without computers. Los Alamos managed to design the atomic bomb with nothing more than a lot of people and mechanical calculators, so I think we could have managed to calculate enough to get to the moon without computers (if we really wanted to).

        I'm sure there are plenty of other important points in history that could have led to a very different outcome, but the point is - life evolving may or may not be rare, but a technological civilisation IMO is.

        Yes, technological civilizations are going to be rarer than single-celled life. More importantly, those civilizations would have to arise within a narrow time/distance window for us to spot them by radio. And it's possible advanced technological civilizations don't survive long after developing nuclear weapons.

        1. boltar Silver badge

          Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

          "Intelligent life has to evolve. That, again, seems hard. Then again, both elephants and whales are pretty intelligent. As are chimps."

          Why does it have to? Multicellular life evvolved 600 million years ago. Single celled life evolved 3.5 BILLION years ago - ie 2.9 billion years where nothing much else happened. So if you ask me multicellular life is an extrenly rare fluke.

          As for the animals you mentioned, they've all been around a few million years and have yet to even evolve complex speech, never mind build anything resembling a civilisation. Intelligence is an evolved survival trait and is energy intensive, so the minimum required is what will occur. Humans were a special one off case (as far as we know) in 3.5 billion years of life on this planet and whats more simply being intelligent doesn't mean you'll survive long enough to invent complex technology. Ask the Neanderthals.

          1. handleoclast Silver badge

            Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

            @boltar

            Why does it have to?

            Bad phrasing on my part, perhaps, but I was responding to your "humans had to evolve" by pointing out that intelligence had to evolve [as a prerequisite for industrial civilization]. Because whatever the intelligence is, only on one planet in the entire universe is it going to be Homo sapiens. Intelligence (not humans) have to evolve as a prerequisite for a technological civilization that we can detect. Happy now?

            As for your argument that none of the other animals have developed intelligence at our level, two things:

            1) We don't know how intelligent whales are. We do know that they communicate but we haven't deciphered it. Maybe they encrypt it. :)

            2) One of the big reasons no other animal has developed a technological civilization is that we beat them to it and have thoroughly occupied that niche, leaving no room for any others. As you said, "ask the Neanderthals."

            Intelligence is, indeed, highly energy intensive. Yet it must be worth it, because we're here. And we're doing well at wiping out many other species so we can make use of their habitats. There once was a path leading to intelligence in a world where high intelligence was not the norm, despite the costs. The only reason that path is no longer there is because we took it first.

            The question is not whether intelligence is cost-effective (it quite clearly is) but how likely it is for evolution to stumble upon it. Elephants, chimps (and even corvids) suggest that intelligence is not as highly unlikely as you suggest. Limited intelligence, sure, but the same can be said of Australopithecus afarensis, and look how that ended up.

            We don't have anything that other animals do not, we just have it in different quantities. Since you can find species that take various attributes to extremes in order to survive, and intelligence is just one attribute of many, I don't see it as being qualitatively different from the rest.

            Your argument seems to boil down to "we're the only really intelligent species on the planet therefore intelligence is unlikely," but it's a flawed argument for many reasons.

            1. boltar Silver badge

              Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

              "One of the big reasons no other animal has developed a technological civilization is that we beat them to it and have thoroughly occupied that niche, leaving no room for any others. As you said, "ask the Neanderthals.""

              Homo sapiens are a very recent arrival on the scene - chimps were around for about 2 million years before we showed up. If they were going to evolve any further they would have done so. Ditto all the other animals.

              "Your argument seems to boil down to "we're the only really intelligent species on the planet therefore intelligence is unlikely," but it's a flawed argument for many reasons."

              I don't think so - it took evolution 3.5 billion years to come up with us and it was never a given - it was down to a unique set of circumstances that we still down fully understand. There is zero reason to assume it was inevitable either here (if circumstances had been slightly different) or on any other planet. Evolution evolves the fittest, not the smartest. If the 2 coincide very occasionally then so be it,, but its not an inevitable outcome.

              1. handleoclast Silver badge

                Re: Suggestive, but nothing more

                Homo sapiens are a very recent arrival on the scene - chimps were around for about 2 million years before we showed up. If they were going to evolve any further they would have done so. Ditto all the other animals.

                Erm, nope. We share a common ancestor with the chimps. One of its descendants stayed in chimp-type habitats. Another of its descendants found that it could survive in the new savannah, and something about that environment required enhanced intelligence.

                We were lucky that we exploted a niche where enhanced intelligence was somehow of benefit. If a plague wiped out all of humanity, one of the other apes could start to exploit new niches and advance towards human levels of intelligence. None of them are so specialized that it would be difficult for them to evolve into intelligent tool users.

                Evolution evolves the fittest, not the smartest. If the 2 coincide very occasionally then so be it,, but its not an inevitable outcome.

                Our level of intelligence may not be inevitable, but apes, whales and elephants are also intelligent. I think that's a large enough number to say that intelligence isn't a one-in-a-universe thing.

                We got there first. That's all that prevented any of the others from exploiting environments where increased intelligence was beneficial.

                Did we get intelligence unreasonably quickly or unreasonably slowly? We may never know. This planet spent most of its time in the unicellular stage, but maybe we're the slow kid on the block.

    3. HildyJ
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Suggestive, but nothing more, and nothing less

      By themselves, organics and methane are no big deal; we've found them all over the solar system. The big deal is that the organics were preserved in an environment where we didn't expect them to survive. The even bigger deal is that the methane varies during the year which rules out most, but not all, non-biological processes and would be expected from biological processes. Like the Viking Labeled Release experiment, these findings add to the suggestion that microbial life exists and detract from the suggestion that it does not.

      No proof but perhaps an increase in hope.

  2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Coat

    "Ancient organics"

    Cher's mom?

  3. getHandle

    The chances of anything coming from Mars

    Are 999,999 to one now?

    1. ukgnome
      Alien

      Re: The chances of anything coming from Mars

      Ulla

  4. tip pc Bronze badge
    Alert

    Surely the presence of Martian mud should be the headline?

    Is there mid on Mars, anyone any photos?

    Mud is wet soil. Wet anything would be a huge discovery.

    Unless of course there is no mud and the word was used inappropriately.

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Surely the presence of Martian mud should be the headline?

      The article mention mudstone, so it was mud once but is now a lot less muddy and has dried out.

      Courtesy wikipeadia; Mudstone, a type of mudrock, is a fine-grained sedimentary rock whose original constituents were clays or muds. Grain size is up to 0.063 millimetres (0.0025 in) with individual grains too small to be distinguished without a microscope.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Surely the presence of Martian mud should be the headline?

        Curiousity finding evidence of past mud did make headlines a couple of years back.

        1. tip pc Bronze badge
          Alien

          Re: Surely the presence of Martian mud should be the headline?

          There's also excitement because Curiosity found this stuff without having to look very hard: the organics turned up in some mud that looked likely.

          the article did mention mudstone but later just mentioned mud like it was present tense...... I'm guessing it wasn't mud but rather mudstone, or dust or some other dried up form of mud, but it was not what we would normally describe as mud.

          If curiosity found mud it would be a huge revelation.

        2. I&I

          Re: Surely the presence of Martian mud should be the headline?

          Curiosity

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Surely the presence of Martian mud should be the headline?

      Curiosity is avoiding mud as it's just been washed and waxed. Maybe the next rover will have mud tires...

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mars had life, but war broke out

    And the remnants had fled to Earth.

    Not little green men like fanciful science fiction would have you believe. Bipedal homo sapiens, just like native Earthlings.

    1. Fizzle
      Alien

      Re: Mars had life, but war broke out

      I am like-minded sir or madam.

      Succinctly put.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And the remnants had fled to Earth.

      hmm, that's the plot of something... a Quatermass...?

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: And the remnants had fled to Earth.

        Quadragesimomass to a place or two.

      2. VinceH Silver badge
        Alien

        Re: And the remnants had fled to Earth.

        "hmm, that's the plot of something... a Quatermass...?"

        Missions... possibly. I'm not 100% sure that's where they're going with it because my VirginMedia box decided to perform an update when I was part way through an episode, just at the point I was wondering if that's where the programme was heading.

        (I was watching my recordings in the early hours. And instead of doing something sensible like checking if the box is not on standby and not recording anything before updating, delaying if either were true, it just went ahead and did it.)

        1. BoldMan

          Re: And the remnants had fled to Earth.

          You can always catch up on Missions on the BBC iPlayer, I'm enjoying the series a lot, esp the theme tune and the depiction of Americans as bullying thugs, gotta love the French for that :D

          1. ukgnome
            Alien

            Re: And the remnants had fled to Earth.

            Ulla

      3. John 110

        Re: And the remnants had fled to Earth.

        James Blish's Fallen Star perhaps?

      4. tfb Silver badge

        Re: And the remnants had fled to Earth.

        Yes. Quatermass and the pit, I think. Very frightening.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Unhappy

          Yes. Quatermass and the pit, I think. Very frightening.

          Yes, the idea of Mars being inhabited by insects who'd re-engineered the precursors of Homo Sapiens, including hard wired remote control into the sub conscious mind.

          One of the few examples I've ever seen of what a really advanced technology would look like.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Mars had life, but war broke out

      "And the remnants had fled to Earth."

      That's close to the plot of 'Inherit the Stars' - the first book of the Giant Series by James P. Hogan. The planet was 'Minerva', located in what is now the Asteroid belt, instead of Mars, and the human survivors got to Earth via the Moon, which originally orbited Minerva.

      Not a bad read.

  6. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Mars suddenly becomes interesting

    The standard view of Mars is that it is a dead rock. Uninteresting, no resources that are worth the cost of extracting and too difficult to inhabit to be worth the effort.

    But wait! If there are "organics" there, and relatively near the surface, that changes things considerably. If Mars had oil then that's a game-changer.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Mars suddenly becomes interesting

      and if those bugs were only 45 million years away from developing an atom bomb....

      'what do you mean it's out of range of the US Navy - get that aircraft carrier up there NOW!!!!'

    2. Grikath Silver badge

      Re: Mars suddenly becomes interesting

      " If Mars had oil then that's a game-changer."

      Funny you should say that... If there was once life on Mars, and if conditions persisted long enough to let it ..breed.. there would have been a lot of organic goo on the bottom of the then-seas. Which, if properly covered up and stewed by pretty much the same processes as here on earth, should have resulted in layers rich in the stuff we call "oil".

      The problem there is that those layers would be a bit deeper down than the Rovers can dig for. And exposed on the surface nothing organic lasts long in the current martian climate, so even if something eroded out, and we'd get extremely lucky in hitting upon such a layer, the Rovers would still have to dig deeper than they currently can to reach potentially uncontaminated material. ( Which is also clearly stated in the article.)

      Even when the article states there is no way of knowing whether the molecules detected were made by biochemical or physical-chemical means, it also states that there's quite a bit more of it, in amount and location, than expected. Which is a very hopeful thing, even when the experiments themselves aren't even equipped to prove a biochemical origin unequivocally. You'd need to be able to prove chirality-bias for that ( for something resembling earth-type life ), and the Rovers simply aren't equipped for it.

      But once it's proven life once did exist on Mars..... There should be "oil".

  7. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Not holding my breath

    These seem to be precursors to life not products of it. Though they will be very helpful in trying to work out how we got here,

  8. Siberian Hamster

    Perhaps a long lost relative of aManFRomMaRs?

    1. Alistair Silver badge
      Windows

      @ Siberian Hamster:

      Perhaps the hive mind of the surviving transferees?

  9. TVU Silver badge

    "Organic material and methane finds can’t be tied to biological processes"

    That is the key comment there. Organic compounds just means carbon containing compounds and does not necessarily imply the need for living organisms. For example, amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) such as glycine, alanine and glutamic acid have been found in meteorites but they derived from standard chemical reactions and not from anything living.

    Similarly, the methane could arise from seasonal sublimation of ice that just happens to contain methane from Mars' ancient atmosphere when the volcanoes where far more active.

  10. 89724102371714531892324I9755670349743096734346773478647852349863592355648544996313855148583659264921

    More life in Uranus.

  11. MachDiamond Silver badge

    I'm not excited yet.

    Organic substances are anything with Carbon as part of their makeup. It's not conclusive evidence of like, past or present. What the finding can do is guide the sorts of sensors and gear that needs to go on a subsequent rover mission so it has a chance of detecting life past or present that would have had a chance on Mars.

    Call me a "Red" as I don't think that the possibility of life on Mars should restrict missions to the planet. If there is life there, it doesn't have much of a chance of evolving to the point where it can negotiate for a license to brew and bottle Guinness for the domestic market, my benchmark for sentience.

    Honestly, a really exciting announcement would be if life were to be discovered that wasn't based on DNA. That would indicate that life is far more prevalent in the universe than we think. Curiosity doesn't have the kit to find that out, but someday there will be a mission that does.

  12. Colin Bain

    Coffee break

    Sounds like the remnants of a cigarette lighter. Alien lands, has a cigarette while looking around at an empty lifeless planet, drops lighter, flies off to find life elsewhere. Explains why it was so easy to find. Timing is everything because it was so long age there was no life on earth either. Just spaceships passing in the night!

  13. Kaltern

    I'm not convinced we'd be told if they found life on mars that was larger than bacteria. Governments seem to be cautious about such things.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We got a Four- Oh - Four on Main Bus B

    404: Life Not Found

    AC

  15. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Now if Methane deposits exist in slushy water ice IE Chathrates....

    That means you now have a viable supply of fuel for large scale industrial use.

    Wood --> charcoal kick started the Industrial Revolution

    Coal --> Coke pushed it further and harder (and still does).

    Methane could be the key to large scale human settlement.

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