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Organic compounds found in ancient lake on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has confirmed the presence of organic molecules on Mars for the first time. Could this be the food for life on Mars?

The Curiosity Rover first landed on Mars six years ago, travelling 12 miles since it first touched down in the Gale crater. This isn’t the first time that the rover has detected organic molecules on the red planet – in 2015, Curiosity detected organic molecules that contained chlorine. Many scientists did not find that compelling proof of organic molecules on Mars at the time, due to contamination problems on Curiosity’s analytical equipment. This time, however, it’s different.

Whilst it isn’t quite the discovery of little green men on Mars, this is an important step in the discovery of extraterrestrial life. The data gathered revealed complex organic molecules in the sediment of an ancient Martian lake bed. These molecules are thought to be breakdown products of other, larger and more complex organic molecules. This could provide us with answers about the history and future of life on Mars.

This isn’t the first time that the rover has detected organic molecules on the red planet

Onboard Curiosity, the sediment samples were heated to around 500-820°C. The samples were then analysed using techniques such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and evolved gas analysis. The samples have been identified as a series of thiopenic, aromatic, and aliphatic compounds, dating back to around three billion years ago.

This suggests that before our closest planetary neighbour was a dry and dusty desert, there were lakes acting as a rich source of carbon-based compounds. These molecules could have been part of life itself or acted as a food source for life. Either way, the data suggests that Mars once had an environment capable of supporting organic compounds.

These molecules could have been part of life itself or acted as a food source for life

There is still the question of the origin of the molecules: are these molecules from long-extinct organisms found on Mars? Or, was their origin from comets crashing into the planet’s surface? So far, researchers cannot determine where these molecules came from, but the data is clear, this is the first time that complex organic molecules have been detected on the red planet.

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