Organic molecules revealed on Mars by Curiosity's new kind of experiment

Fig. 1: The context for the sample acquisition. Credit: DOI: 10.1038/s41550-021-01507-9
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and an international team of space scientists have discovered previously unknown organic molecules on Mars. They used a new experiment aboard Curiosity to find them. These results were published in Nature Astronomy.

NASA has sent six rovers and nine orbiters to Mars so far, with the goal of learning more about extraterrestrial life. The planet has been photographed using a variety of cameras to achieve this goal. Recently, rovers dug into Martian soil to take samples for analysis. This work aims to discover more about the chemical composition of the soil near the surface and, more specifically, to determine if the soil contains organic molecules. They could be evidence that there was life before them. Although the rovers found organic molecules, samples weren't sufficient to prove that they were created or used by living organisms. The search for organic molecules continues. This new effort was initiated after the Curiosity Rover's drill failed in 2017. The control team decided to perform an experiment that the Curiosity Rover had never done before.

Curiosity is equipped with a sample analysis at Mars instrument, an array that holds soil samples while they are being analysed. There are 74 cups in the array, but nine of them remain empty most of their time. The remaining nine cups contain chemicals that can be used for other types of experiments. NASA's team decided to collect soil samples from the cup containing chemicals after the drill failed. Then, they would analyze the reactions. Researchers discovered organic molecules in the soil, which were not previously seen on Mars. Although the new experiment didn't find any evidence of life on Mars, it did reveal that there are novel ways to test for it.

Scientists discover that salts may be an important part of the Martian organic puzzle.

More information: M. Millan and al, Organic molecules discovered in Mars's Bagnold Dunes through Curiosity’s derivatization experiment. Nature Astronomy (2021). Information from Nature Astronomy M. Millan and al, Organic molecules discovered in Mars' Bagnold Dunes through Curiosity's desivatization experiment (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-021-01507-9

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