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Curiosity detects organic material on Mars, but scientists are unsure of its origin

There seems to be no signs of little green men on Mars, but that hasn’t stopped NASA’s latest Mars rover—Curiosity—from scurrying around and examining Martian soil.  That’s not to say that Mars doesn’t contain some sort of organic materials, which NASA has confirmed there are organic compounds on Mars.

Curiosity’s onboard lab has examined various Martian soil samples and found chlorinated methane gas floating around the sample in the microwave-sized test chamber.  Before ET fans get too excited, it’s worth noting that perchlorate released from the heating of the soil sample may have bonded with carbon dioxide (found in Mar’s atmosphere) to form the chlorinated methane.  It was known prior to Curiosity’s arrival that Martian soil contained perchlorate salts, which has a tendency to destroy organic compounds when combined and heated up together.

Even if organic matters are found on Mars, it doesn’t mean that their origins are also from Mars.  Meteorites and comets bombarding the planet may have carried along with it organic compounds, and it’s tough to be sure about any of these possibilities.  

(Caltech's John Grotzinger)


“There are many processes that could destroy even the organic material that falls in from space: cosmic radiation, hydrogen peroxide, or ultra-high-dose radiation,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission, said in a press conference.

Piecing the puzzles together to determine the history of Mars will be a difficult task, but scientists of past, present and future Mars-related missions will continue to use what’s available to them to figure out a small part ‘next frontier.’

“We’re doing science at the speed of science,” Grotzinger said. “Curiosity’s middle name is patience, and we all have to have a healthy dose of that.”

Scientists have at their helm some of the most advanced analytical instruments available on the Red Planet, but that don’t mean that they will make an amazing discovery overnight.

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