The new findings - of "tough" organic molecules in 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere - appear in the June 8 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Science.
Naturally, the usual UFO fans have jumped on this and are suggesting it's probably aliens - or at least some sign of life on the Red Planet. Previous research had seen evidence for sporadic methane plumes on Mars, but never seasonally recurring events. The 2020 rover will include an advanced spectrometer to scan for organic molecules.
The rover has been exploring Mars since it landed in August 2012 as part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Mars2020 will shed light on the organic molecules-and prepare a sample that some future mission could bring back to Earth. "It had the ability to support life-but doesn't mean life were there". This latest evidence, however, is far more compelling. After all, these are just organic molecules on their own, so we're still in the stage of chemistry, rather than biology.
For the first time, scientists say they have clear evidence that the chemical building blocks of life exist on Mars. Based on the masses of the detected gases, the scientists could determine that the complex organic matter consisted of aromatic and aliphatic components including sulfur-containing species such as thiophenes.
This diagram shows how methane beneath the Martian ground might find its way to the surface, where its uptake and release could produce the large seasonal variation in the atmosphere that was observed by the Curiosity rover.
The Curiosity rover has not been able to find the source of the organic molecules in its findings, according to the report. They're considered necessary for life to form, but there are plenty of places with lots of organic compounds but no life.
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NASA hasn't found life on Mars. "Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter", said Eigenbrode. Then the scientists sifted through the results to figure out what might be genuine Martian organics. Kerogen is a name given to organic material that is present in rocks and in carbonaceous meteorites. One of their most hard tasks is to prove that the carbon they find is biogenic, and not produced through non-living, geological processes.
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.
"We have greatly expanded our search for organic compounds, which is fundamental in the search for life", said Paul Mahaffy, study author and director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Questions remain, however, as to how the organic material was formed. "While we don't know the source of the material, the unbelievable consistency of the results makes me think we have a slam-dunk signal for organics on Mars", Eigenbrode said.
Another mission, Mars InSight, is heading to Mars right now to study the geological life of the planet.
For his part Webster says he has no preference among the different explanations, and believes it will take a long time before any final conclusions can be drawn. "If you can do this on Mars, imagine what you can do with analytical facilities available to us on Earth", he says. Previously, some scientists have said it would be destroyed by the oxidation processes that are active at Mars' surface.