A burning question has been on the minds of many astronomers and space enthusiasts for years: Is life on Mars? A team of NASA researchers may have gotten one step closer to confirmation when the Curiosity rover recently discovered the presence of molecular organic matter in a Mars crater — with absolute certainty.
The space agency’s team, which oversees the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) instrument aboard Curiosity, claim it made a “definitive” detection of organic molecular components. This landmark discovery suggests that life once existed, perhaps, billions of years ago when the Red Planet once had an atmosphere. Today, conditions on Mars are hostile and cannot support life. Perhaps, this is why the so-called cross and lamb carving were in ruins, as seen in GigaPan pictures of Mars recently.
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) December 16, 2014
While the finding of organic molecules by the NASA rover’s instrument suite represents an astronomic milestone, researchers stopped short of claiming that they are of the type that can actually involve “life.” They building blocks consist largely of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. However, it’s difficult to rule out at this point if the type of compounds analyzed by the NASA mobile lab do not actually support life; some organic matter compounds are made of non-life chemical reactions.
There are facts about Mars that are irrefutable, based on evidence collected by Curiosity when it was deployed four years ago. For instance, dry riverbeds are present, and minerals were found that only form in the presence of water in its liquid state.
The sifting of sediment is located in the Gale crater. NASA officials believe the area was once a lake that existed billions of years ago. Moreover, rock formations that resemble mudstone likely formed from sediment that settled from rushing water. As a consequence, organic compounds of the type found recently were deposited by kinetic energy or other chemical reactions, according to Caroline Freissinet of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is also a lead researcher on the SAM project.
“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?”
The team offered an insight into how the organic matter on Mars was detected and collected.
“For this analysis, the Curiosity rover sample acquisition system drilled into a mudstone and filtered fine particles of it through a sieve, then delivered a portion of the sample to the SAM laboratory. SAM detected the compounds using its Evolved Gas Analysis (EGA) mode by heating the sample up to about 875 degrees Celsius (around 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit) and then monitoring the volatiles released from the sample using a quadrupole mass spectrometer, which identifies molecules by their mass using electric fields. SAM also detected and identified the compounds using its Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) mode. In this mode, volatiles are separated by the amount of time they take to travel through a narrow tube (gas chromatography – certain molecules interact with the sides of the tube more readily and thus travel more slowly) and then identified by their signature mass fragments in the mass spectrometer.”
The scope of the study and findings by NASA on the existence of organic matter on Mars is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.
[Image via: Wikimedia Commons]