Martian Ammonia

NASA Rover Detects Organic Molecules on the Surface of Mars

NASA's rovers are getting closer to unraveling the Red Planet's mysterious past.

11. 2. 21 by Victor Tangermann
NASA
Image by NASA

A team of researchers successfully tested a sample of Martian dirt, first scooped up by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover in March 2017, by directing the rover mix it with chemical reagents inside a cup.

This mixture then released organic molecules which NASA has never detected on the surface of Mars ever before, Inverse reports.

While it’s an exciting discovery, it falls short of demonstrating that carbon-based lifeforms once lived on the surface of the Red Planet. It is, however, a step in that direction.

“This experiment was definitely successful,” Maëva Millan, postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and lead author of a new study published on Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, told Inverse.

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“While we haven’t found what we were looking for, biosignatures, we showed that this technique is really promising,” she added.

The experiment “has expanded the inventory of molecules present in Martian samples and demonstrated a powerful tool to further enable the search for polar organic molecules of biotic or prebiotic relevance,” Millan and her team concluded in their paper.

The two chemicals most prominently found in the mixture were benzoic acid and ammonia, both possible indicators of ancient life.

“One of the things that we were trying to look for [when searching for] organic molecule on Mars is to understand the past habitability of Mars and to look for bioindicators,” Millan told Inverse.

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The team is now hoping to find the molecules’ “parents,” or where they came from. Millan and her team suggest in their paper that they could be the result of geological processes.

It’s not the first time Curiosity has detected organic molecules in Martian soil, but the new discovery is expanding the list of organic molecules detected by NASA.

The news comes after an international team of astrobiologists detected a presence of “thiophenes,” which are special compounds found in coal, crude oil and white truffles back on Earth, after analyzing samples picked up by Curiosity.

The researchers suggested in March 2020 that the thiophenes could be a sign of ancient life on Mars, but more research is still needed.

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Meanwhile, Millan and her team are hoping NASA’s Perseverance rover will shed more light on the organic molecules.

READ MORE: NASA just found these organic molecules on Mars for the first time [Inverse]

More on Curiosity: Scientists Say NASA’s Mars Rover Is on the Site of Ancient Ponds, Not a Huge Lake


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