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Evidence for ancient life on Mars could be just below surface, new study finds (+video)

Researchers say that evidence of ancient life on Mars could take the form of simple organic molecules lying just beneath the Red Planet's surface, and that it could be detectable by NASA's newest rover, which is scheduled to touch down on the planet next month.

This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.
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Evidence of ancient life on Mars, if any such evidence exists, might be detectable at shallower depths below the planet's surface than has been thought, a new study says – which would improve the chances that NASA's newest Mars rover, scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet next month, finds it.

The research indicates that simple organic molecules, such as a single molecule of formaldehyde, could exist a mere 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) beneath the Martian surface. While the radiation level at these depths is still intense, simple building blocks of life (and, in the case of young craters, perhaps even complex building blocks) could survive, the researchers said.

The study, which suggests ideal locations and depths to search for organic molecules, could act as a road map for the Curiosity rover, which is due to land on Mars the night of Aug. 5.

Once on the surface, Curiosity, carrying out NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, is expected to dig, drill and investigate rocks for signs that Mars  is, or ever was, inhabited.

"Right now the challenge is that past Martian landers haven't seen any organic material whatsoever," study lead author Alexander Pavlov, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement. "We know that organic molecules have to be there, but we can't find any of them in the soil."

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