Over almost six years roaming the surface of Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has detected organic molecules that offer a taste of what an ancient life-friendly Red Planet might have looked like. The organic material discovered on Mars is rich in sulphur, which would have also helped to preserve it. Even more compelling was the fact that these compounds seemed to have broken off even bigger, more complex "macromolecules" - substances found on Earth in coal, black shale and other ancient organic remains.
That may be because numerous compounds, such as thiophene, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide, had sulfur atoms in their molecular structure - which would strengthen the relatively fragile organic molecules, allowing them to survive the radiation bombarding the planet's surface for so long. SAM's main aim was to search for organic molecules on the martian surface.
But the scientists can not say what the larger molecules were or how they formed. And, she says, it gives us an idea where to look. Part of its duties include sampling the dirt and the atmosphere for interesting molecules, like those that may reveal a history of life or habitability.
"Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters 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", she said.
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Seasonal changes in methane at Gale Crater.
It will also get some upgraded Curiosity equipment in the form of new hardware, color cameras, a zoom lens and a laser that can reportedly vaporize rocks and soil. In 2009, researchers reported that inexplicable martian plumes randomly belch out thousands of tons of methane at a time. The timing of the pulses provides an important clue.
Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and it could have supported a climate that sustained lakes on Mars.
Inorganic carbon is carbon that is found in compounds that are completely unlike biological molecules. Methane is ubiquitous in places like the atmospheres of gas-giant planets.
Dr Webster said the data pointed to methane trapped in water-based crystals deep under the planet's surface, which slowly seep to the surface when temperatures rise.
"We don't know, but these results tell us we are on the right track"'. Nearly exactly a year ago, NASA reported the discovery of such evidence in the form of an ancient lake that would have been suitable for microbial life to not only survive but flourish.