After years of searching Mars for any signs that it might sustain life or might have sustained life, NASA has finally found organic matter on the Red Planet.

The organic matter was reportedly discovered by NASA’s Curiosity rover buried and preserved in ancient sediments which form a massive lake on Mars some three billion years ago. The discovery is said to be the most compelling evidence that billions of years ago, the parched Red Planet once consisted of carbon-based compounds essential to sustain life.

“The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up,” Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said.

Despite the significant discovery, researchers are still left wondering how the organic matter formed. Were they remnants of the planet’s past organisms? Were they products of chemical reactions with the rocks? Or, did they came to Mars through comets or other space debris?

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“While we don’t know the source of the material, the amazing consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars,” Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biogeochemist at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, explained.

“It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there.”

According to NASA, the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars’ Gale crater about six years ago, found the organic material in pieces of the planet’s mudstone it drilled from the ancient lake bed.

The rocks were heated, and when it reached 500 to 800C, the instruments attached to the rover detected a series of aliphatic, aromatic, and thiophenic vapors. The researchers believe that these are just breakdown products of much larger organic particles trapped in Martian rocks.

“To me, it is amazing that we can show we have organic matter preserved for more than 3bn years in these rocks. This is very promising for the preservation of potential ancient life on the planet,” Kirsten Siebach, a planetary geologist who was not involved in the work, said.

Details about the discovery were published by the NASA scientists in the journal Science.

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