Today, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity tweeted some exciting news:
“This is a really exciting discovery because we have been looking for organic compounds for decades on the surface of Mars and this is the first time that we’ve actually found Martian organic material in the surface,” explains Mars Science Laboratory Participating Scientist Danny Glavin in this video.
“Now what’s exciting about this discovery is it gives us new hope in the search for chemical evidence of life. We’ve found the organic material. Now the next step is finding out what its origin is,” Glavin said.
Right now, he said, there’s no evidence pointing to either a biological origin versus a geological origin.
The rover has been exploring a section on Mars called Gale Crater since it landed in August 2012. And Last year, Curiosity drilled a hole into a rock, dubbed “Cumberland,” on the Red plane’s surface in order to collect samples from inside for clues as to the rock’s composition. Here’s a picture of the 2.5-inch-deep hole taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager:
Earlier today, a team of scientists announced during a press conference at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union, that after careful analysis of the powder collected from inside the rock, that Curiosity has definitievly discovered organic molecules on the planet’s surface for the first time.
This announcement was the result of months of work to ensure that what the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument aboard Curiosity had analysed was organic molecules of Martian origin and not contamination from Earth.
The samples taken at Cumberland rock are not the first soil samples ever collected from Mars, but they were the first time that the organic compounds that SAM analysed were at a high enough concentration to distinguish between background, potentially Earth-based organic contamination, and Martian-based organics.
Here’s a graphic comparing the level of organic compounds in previous samples:
“We had to do hundreds of laboratory experiments back on Earth to simulate condition on the surface of the Red planet in order to convince ourselves that the organic material we’re detecting by SAM is Martian in origin and not something that we had brought with us to Mars,” Glavin said in the video.
Glavin was excited to announce today that the team had ruled out the possibility that the organic molecules were from Earth, leaving only the explanation that they were of Martian origin.
“This first confirmation of organic carbon in a rock on Mars holds much promise,” said Curiosity Participating Scientist Roger Summons of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in a press release. “Organics are important because they can tell us about the chemical pathways by which they were formed and preserved.”
The Curiosity rover team said during today’s press conference that they plan to drill a second hole in the next few months in hopes of finding other organic-rich samples to ultimately help them determine the source of these molecules.
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