Thursday, December 2, 2021

NASA’s rover detects previously unknown organic molecules on Mars

Using a new airborne experiment, NASA’s Curiosity rover has found traces of previously undetected organic molecules on Mars.

None of the organic molecules found in the sand contain clear signs of life, but they do suggest that the new technique, which did not require drilling by a rover, is an effective tool when it comes to finding evidence for carbon-based molecules. which are essential building blocks for life as we know it.

The wet lab experiment came after Curiosity stumbled upon an imaginative bump in late 2016 looking for signs of life on the red planet.

As the rover was preparing to sample Martian rock at the foot of Mount Sharp, its rig suddenly stopped working.

Rather than pause the mission until the problem is fixed, NASA researchers simply shifted gears.

Rather than crushing rock samples into powder, Curiosity’s wet chemistry lab was fed a piece of loose sand that had already been scooped up at Ogunquit Beach.

This on-board lab only includes nine solvent dishes that can only be used once, so researchers have to be very choosy about which samples they end up choosing.

Organic compounds in the Martian rock are very difficult to detect because they break down into simpler molecules when heated.

However, if these organic compounds first react with other chemicals, they are more likely to end up in the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer for non-destructive analysis. Hence, nine cups of Curiosity solvent.

It is a smart system that allows us to quickly analyze the soil on Mars from the comfort of our own planet. However, at the end of 2016, it never passed the test.

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The NASA team didn’t expect Oganquit’s sand to be rich in organic matter, but they weren’t sure they could continue drilling on the planet in the future, so it was worth a try.

After breaking the first seal on Oganquit sand, the researchers discovered several organic compounds, including ammonia and benzoic acid. Some organic compounds have never been found on Mars before.

Now, a couple of years later, the results have been reviewed and published.

As mentioned above, the presence of these organic molecules does not conclusively mean that life once existed on Mars, and no amino acid derivatives were found in the sample.

But interestingly, this new technique can now be used to look for signs of life, even when there is no way to drill.

“This derivatization experiment on Mars expanded the list of molecules present in Martian samples and demonstrated a powerful tool to further search for polar organic molecules related to biotics or prebiotics,” wrote a NASA research team led by astrobiologist Maeva Millan of NASA. Goddard Space Flight Center and Georgetown University.

After all, it took over a year before engineers on Earth were able to fix the Curiosity drill and put it back in operation, but by then we knew that wet chemistry cups could work.

By 2019, a second bowl was ready to be used for a clay sample from Mount Sharp. Other explorations will follow shortly, not only on Mars, but also on Earth.

NASA plans to conduct a mission in the 2030s to collect the rest of the Curiosity samples so that they can be analyzed more thoroughly on our planet.

Research published in Nature Astronomy

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