Discovery of Curiosity: consequences for future Martian missions

Methane emissions are seasonal and organic molecules are trapped in old sedimentary rocks: the latest findings from Curiosity bode well for further exploration and study of Mars. NASA, ESA and Cnes will be busy discovering clues to a past life with the ExoMars 2020 and March 2020 rovers.



After the discovery of methane and many organic molecules, some of which are complex, such as thiophene, benzene or toluene, we still can not say that there is or has been life on Mars. On the other hand, there is the question of whether a form of life could emerge from this environment and, if so, how long it has lasted.

Curiosity will not be able to answer this question. This rover does not ship any instrument capable of flushing out traces of life. It was designed to look for if life was possible someday. In itself, this discovery is "at the heart of the objectives of the mission of Curiosity, which is to advance on the issue of the emergence of life on Mars," explains Francis Rocard, head of programs exploration system solar of the Cnes. Previously, Curiosity had shown that the Gale Crater site has been habitable for a short time in the past but without being able to specify when and for how long.

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This discovery of methane and organic molecules is also very interesting for the history of life on Earth. Mars keeps its geological record in its basement as the Earth erases it with its volcanic activity and plate tectonics, so there is no fossil or index that is more than 3.5 billion years old . For the date of onset of earthly life as for the mechanisms involved, several theories coexist.

After this discovery, what form of life can we expect to discover on the Red Planet? Given the proximity of the Earth and the common history of the two planets, if a form of life emerged on Mars, one would think that it should be similar to what the Earth was able to shelter at the same time. Nothing is less sure.

Biologists are deeply convinced that "life can only be conceived with liquid water and carbon". This is the hypothesis posed when one "looks for life in the Universe, whether on Mars, on Europe [natural satellite of Jupiter, Ed] or on an exoplanet". Life on Earth is "characterized by the DNA contained in the chromosomes of our cells". For extraterrestrial life, it's the big unknown. "We can very well imagine that it is based on another molecule to transmit genetic information. This is the point of looking for life on Mars or elsewhere in the Universe. Is life the same everywhere or are there ways to get there? "For now, nobody has the answer ..."

Real chances for the ExoMars 2020 rover

As to whether future missions to Mars will answer this question, Francis Rocard wants to be measured. The next mission to land on Mars is InSight with a French seismometer on board. It should land on November 26th. Clearly, it is not this mission that will tell if Mars has been inhabited. Indeed, this lander has the sole purpose of analyzing for the first time the interior of Mars to provide geophysical information on the planet.

With the next mission, the ExoMars 2020 rover of the European Space Agency due to land on Mars in early 2021, the chances of discovering traces of life are real. This mission third European Martian mission will be "able to drill more than 2 meters, against 5 centimeters currently for Curiosity". Finally, there is March 2020, under Nasa flag, the successor of Curiosity. This Curiosity 2 is expected to land on Mars in February 2021 and "the CNES will provide the chemical eyes" of the rover, the SuperCam instrument, "with dramatically increased performance compared to its predecessor ChemCam". He will notably use Raman spectroscopy to "remotely measure the chemical composition of organic molecules contained in rocks". SuperCam will also have an infrared spectroscopy capability to locate "clays, sedimentary rocks that formed when the planet was conducive to life."

This mission will collect samples that will later be brought back to Earth. In conclusion, it is probably only "with these samples analyzed on Earth that we can provide a definitive answer on the emergence of the living on Mars".

What you must remember

Curiosity has just discovered the existence in the past of a more complex organic chemistry than imagined, as well as a seasonal character of the methane emanations (which on Earth are of biological origin).

These results reinforce the interest of looking for traces of extinct life, if it has existed.
The ExoMars 2020 and March 2020 rovers will be equipped with instruments to carry out this work.


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