NASA's Curiosity rover detected a variety of organic molecules on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA Rover Finds Evidence of Organic Molecules on the Surface of Mars

Researchers decided to conduct a unique experiment that had never been attempted before. Surprisingly, it was more than successful. The Curiosity rover detected ammonia and benzoic acid which have never been found on Mars before.

While studying samples of Martian soil taken from the Bagnold dune cluster at the foot of Mount Sharp, the Curiosity rover found organic molecules. All this serves as additional evidence in favor of the habitability of the planet in the past.

Although Mars is now cold and barren, rivers once flowed and large lakes existed here. Scientists believe that ancient microorganisms or even more highly organized life could have arisen on Mars at that time.


NASA’s Curiosity rover found new organic molecules on Mars

Searching for building blocks of life on Mars

Scientists reported that the Curiosity rover discovered organic molecules on Mars. During experiments utilizing an untraditional method, they detected a variety of compounds that have not been detected on Mars ever before.

New method

This new type of experiment, the so-called wet chemistry for derivatization, had scientists drop the sample in a cup filled with a chemical mixture. There are a total of 9 such pre-filled cups on the Curiosity rover. In all previous cases, the collected samples were put directly into storage. This time, the Martian dirt reacted with the chemicals in the cup, which released molecules that were then analyzed. Little did scientists know that they would find completely new organic molecules on Mars.

Adding new molecules to the list

This is not the first time that the Curiosity rover detected organic molecules on Mars in samples but this new discovery made the list of compounds quite more abundant. Although scientists did not find biosignatures, the results of the study give new life to the theories for the past habitability of the planet.

The Curiosity rover collected samples from the Bagnold Dunes (shown in this image) and found unexpected organic molecules on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Curiosity rover collected samples from the Bagnold Dunes (shown in this image) and found unexpected organic molecules on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Organic molecules on Mars

Scientists have identified several organic molecules in recent and older discoveries – benzoic acid, ammonia, phosphoric acid, phenol, nitrogen-containing molecules. It should be noted that ammonia and benzoic acid had never been detected before. Their presence at a location like the Gale Crater, which scientists believe contained water in the past, is promising. While these molecules are not biosignatures, it is possible that their origin could be linked to ancient microorganisms.

ExoMars Mission

While Curiosity has been making progress and discoveries, its “laboratory” has limited capabilities. This is why it is difficult to find out too much about the collected samples and we are mostly getting confirmations about the existence of organic molecules on Mars. Their exact composition, however, remains a mystery.

Astronomers have high hopes for the upcoming ExoMars mission that should be launched to the Red Planet in 2022. Roscosmos and the European Space Agency have been implementing the ExoMars joint project since 2012. The main goal of the mission is to find out if life existed on Mars and if it can exist there now.

Postponed until 2022

The program was divided into two stages, the first of which was carried out in 2016 when the ExoMars-2016 station was launched to Mars. It consisted of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) scientific orbiter and the Schiaparelli demo lander, which crashed during landing due to a software error.

The second phase of the ExoMars mission was originally planned for 2018, but then the launch was postponed until 2020 before it was postponed a second time for 2022. This second stage of the mission should deliver the autonomous station Kazachok and the Rosalind Franklin rover to the Oxia Planum landing site.

Sample Return Mission

With Curiosity, Perseverance, and Rosalind Franklin all collecting and analyzing samples from different locations, we can expect countless major discoveries in the upcoming years. And in the next decade, we might even see a sample return mission to Mars and back that will bring back the first-ever soil samples from the Red Planet.

While rovers make significant discoveries, nothing would beat the opportunity to analyze Martian soil in a laboratory on Earth. This is when we might get the full picture of the history of Mars and a clear answer to the most important question – was there ever life there?


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Sources:

Clarke, A. (2021, November 3). NASA Mars Curiosity Rover finds organic molecules on martian soil for the first time; what did experts say? Science Times.
Milanowski, M. (2021, November 2). Curiosity found new organic molecules on Mars. Popular Science.
Millan, M., Teinturier, S., Malespin, C. A. (2021, November 1). Organic molecules revealed in Mars’s Bagnold Dunes by Curiosity’s derivatization experiment. Nature News.
Rabie, P. (2021, November 1). NASA just found these organic molecules on Mars for the first time. Inverse.
Tangemann, V. (2021, November 2). NASA rover detects organic molecules on the surface of Mars. Futurism.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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