A recent study, featuring data from NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover, has revealed a potential detection of organic molecules on the Martian surface. Led by a team of scientists, including astrobiologist Amy Williams from the University of Florida (UF), the study offers new evidence for the past habitability of Mars. Published in the journal Nature, the research suggests the presence of a complex organic geochemical cycle on Mars, indicating the existence of multiple reservoirs of organic compounds.
The study’s findings indicate the presence of molecules associated with aqueous processes, suggesting that water may have played a crucial role in the development of diverse organic matter on Mars. This discovery implies that the necessary building blocks for life may have endured on the planet for a longer duration than previously believed.
Amy Williams, an expert in organic geochemistry and a participating scientist on the Perseverance mission, has been actively involved in the search for life’s building blocks on Mars. Her work focuses on identifying habitable environments, searching for potential life-related materials, and uncovering evidence of past life on the Red Planet. The ultimate goal is to send the samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth through future missions, although this process will be complex and span several years.
“The potential detection of several organic carbon species on Mars has implications for understanding the carbon cycle on Mars, and the potential of the planet to host life throughout its history,” said Williams, who serves as an assistant professor in UF’s Department of Geological Sciences.
It is important to note that organic matter can be formed through various processes, not limited to those associated with life. Geological processes and chemical reactions can also give rise to organic molecules, and these mechanisms are considered potential sources of the detected Martian organics. Williams and her team will continue to investigate the origins of these molecules.
Previously, organic carbon had been detected on Mars by the Mars Phoenix lander and the Mars Curiosity rover, utilizing advanced techniques like evolved gas analysis and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The recent study introduces a different technique that can potentially identify simple organic compounds on Mars.
The Jezero crater, where the rover landed, was chosen as the landing site due to its high potential for past habitability. Being an ancient lake basin, it contains various minerals such as carbonates, clays, and sulfates, which have the ability to preserve organic materials and potential signs of ancient life.
“We didn’t initially expect to detect these potential organic signatures in the Jezero crater floor,” said Williams. “But their diversity and distribution in different units of the crater floor now suggest potentially different fates of carbon across these environments.”
To map the distribution of organic molecules and minerals on rock surfaces, the scientists utilized a unique instrument called the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC). This instrument employs deep ultraviolet Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy, enabling simultaneous measurements of weak Raman scattering and strong fluorescence emissions, providing valuable insights into the organic composition of Mars.
These findings represent a significant advancement in our exploration of the Red Planet and lay the groundwork for future investigations into the possibility of life beyond Earth.
“We are just now scratching the surface of the organic carbon story on Mars,” Williams concluded. “And it is an exciting time for planetary science.”
Source: University of Florida