Since landing on Mars in 2012, NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been exploring the Gale Crater to search for potential signs of life by analyzing Martian geology and climate. The Gale Crater could have environmental conditions favorable for microbial life; scientists believe that it once was water-rich with flowing rivers that might have hosted ancient alien life.
Curiosity rover has an instrument called ‘Sample Analysis at Mars’ (SAM) that analyzes if organic molecules in the soil are similar to those that comprise life on Earth. The instrument detects whether the compounds are abiotic - not produced by living organisms, biotic - produced by living organisms, or prebiotic - the type of molecules scientists say could have led to the evolution of life on Earth.
In a new study published on Monday, November 1st, in the Nature Astronomy journal by NASA, scientists shared NASA's Curiosity Rover tried a new technique to aid in the search for ancient alien life on Mars. The scientists revealed that in 2017 the Rover's SAM tool malfunctioned after it collected a soil sample from Mars’ Bagnold Dune. The drill stopped working, scientists shared that they decided not to abort the mission, instead they decided to change the plan - they commanded Curiosity to drop the dirt sample into a cup containing a chemical reagent, rather than an empty cup like they usually do when collecting samples. Curiosity's SAM is equipped with a total of 74 cups inside, only 9 of those cups are pre-filled with a chemical mixture. It was the first-of-its-kind experiment on the Red Planet, known as "wet sampling" technique.
Dropping the soil sample inside that specific cup triggered a chemical reaction that allowed researchers to detect organic molecules that had not yet been discovered on Mars before 2017. "No amino-acid derivatives were detected. However, chemically derivatized benzoic acid and ammonia were detected," scientists wrote, "Mass spectra matching derivatized phosphoric acid and phenol were present, as were several nitrogen-bearing molecules and as yet unidentified high-molecular-weight compounds. The origin of these compounds, including those that may be internal to the Sample Analysis at Mars background, is examined. This derivatization experiment on Mars has expanded the inventory of molecules present in Martian samples and demonstrated a powerful tool to further enable the search for polar organic molecules of biotic or prebiotic relevance," NASA researchers wrote in the newly published study that detailed the results.
Now scientists are working to find out where the compounds in the sand dunes derived from. The study says that the molecules were maybe produced by geological processes on Martian terrain, but could also potentially indicate that the planet was habitable in the past.
NASA looks forward to using the newly sent Perseverance Rover to collect samples that could be brought back to Earth to analyze in person at a lab for the first time. The agency will conduct a Sample Retrieval Lander mission in 2026 to bring back Martian soil samples with a new rover that is under development by the European Space Agency (ESA).
I hear “plandids” are all the rage back on Earth. Did I get it right?🤳— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 23, 2021
I took this image using my Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) which is on the turret at the end of my arm. All LEDs were off, so the Sun is my only source of illumination. https://t.co/U4CvjVv4R5 pic.twitter.com/w2jo5vpgey
Featured Image Source: NASA