Curiosity discovers first evidence of organic matter on surface of Mars

17 Dec 2014

An image of the hole drilled by Curiosity that extracted the sample. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Curiosity rover currently roaming the surface of Mars has made a major breakthrough in detecting traces of ‘organic molecules’ that could show evidence of microbial life beneath the planet’s surface.

These organic molecules, in the right conditions, can give rise to the possibility of life as they are primarily made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms which form the basis of our existence here on Earth.

These particular molecules were found in a drilled sample of the Sheepbed mudstone in Gale crater, the original landing site for the Curiosity rover using the robot’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

Scientists at US space agency NASA believe the crater was once the site of a lake billions of years ago, and rocks like mudstone formed from sediment in the lake and, with this new evidence, showed that this location once offered a habitat for limited organic material existing within liquid water and a warm environment.

Also included in the organic molecules discovered by the NASA scientists are a number of chlorine atoms, most notably chlorobenzene, which on Earth is not naturally occurring and is most commonly used in industrial solvent which classifies it as a carcinogen, but scientists believe it could have been created following a heating process within its SAM instrument suite.

This illustration portrays possible ways methane might be added to Mars’ atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/University of Michigan

Methane spike recorded

Perhaps just as interesting is the news that following Curiosity’s drilling, NASA also recorded that methane levels spiked by as much as 10 times more than normal, which to many would suggest reason to be hopeful given that methane is associated with the breakdown of organic waste created by intelligent life.

However, ever cautious, a member of the Curiosity science team is erring on the side of caution by saying the findings could show previous evidence of life, but equally may not.

“This temporary increase in methane – sharply up and then back down – tells us there must be some relatively localised source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

Regardless of whether the gas is biological or not, its discovery could prove exponentially beneficial to future manned Mars missions as astronauts could potentially mine the planet’s surface for the gas to use as a fuel source, prolonging their ability to stay on the planet.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic