NASA Curiosity Rover Finds Organic Matter on Mars
NASA’s Curiosity rover has found organic molecules on Mars. Organic molecules are the building blocks of all known forms of terrestrial life and consist of a wide variety of molecules made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.
The surface of Mars is currently inhospitable to life as we know it, but there is evidence that the Red Planet once had a climate that could have supported life billions of years ago. For example, features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water have been discovered on the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite was sent to Mars in 2011 to discover more about the ancient habitable Martian environment by examining clues in the chemistry of rocks and the atmosphere.
The organic molecules were found in Gale crater, the landing site for the Curiosity rover. Scientists think the crater was once the site of a lake billions of years ago.
Building Blocks for Life
Organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don’t involve life, and there is not enough evidence to tell if the matter found by the team came from ancient Martian life or from a non-biological process. But the discovery shows that the ancient environment offered a supply of reduced organic molecules for use as building blocks for life and an energy source for life. Caroline Freissinet of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said:
We think life began on Earth around 3.8 billion years ago, and our result shows that places on Mars had the same conditions at that time – liquid water, a warm environment, and organic matter. So if life emerged on Earth in these conditions, why not on Mars as well?
If confirmed, the detection of life on Mars would be one of the most spectacular – and important – scientific discoveries that we can imagine. It would imply that life exists in the universe, probably on myriads of planets, and perhaps there are intelligent life and advanced civilizations out there. The search for radio signals from alien intelligences, another project with a really huge potential payoff if successful, is ongoing.
Images from NASA and Shutterstock.