Perseverance finds a wealth of organic material on Mars

The search for life on Mars has long been confusing. Inconclusive experiments abound, but one thing is certain: there is organic matter on the red planet. Now, a new study in Nature has confirmed that finding and shown just how complex this organic matter really is.

Understanding what this new study means requires understanding some of the backstory of why it matters. Viking, one of the first landers on the Red Planet in the 1970s, had an experimental result that puzzled scientists at the time: a few chemicals made the sensor look like it had been contaminated with cleaning fluids . It wasn’t until decades later, in 2008, when the Phoenix lander found perchlorate in Martian regolith that it became clear that the Viking lander hadn’t detected any cleaning products – it had seen organic matter that had reacted with the perchlorate in his sample. .

Phoenix also directly measured organic matter in Martian soil, including methane, one of the most common organic materials on Earth. Curiosity also helped with clear detection of organic material in 2012. But more recently, another, more capable rover arrived on the scene.

Fraser tells the story of the search for life on Mars, although a lot has changed in 6 years.

Perseverance landed on Mars in 2021 and served as the basis for much of the ongoing flurry of research on the planet. This includes the latest study from Nature, which used the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument on the rover.

SHERLOC scans a target about 2 inches away using techniques, including deep ultraviolet Raman spectroscopy and fluorescence spectroscopy, which can help differentiate between types of organic materials in the scanned object. What the instrument found surprised Dr. Amy Williams of the University of Florida (UF) and her fellow organic chemists.

According to a UF press release, signs appeared in the SHERLOC data that were “consistent with molecules linked to aqueous processes” according to a UF press release. In other words, some organic materials that SHERLOC has collected data on were created underwater.

Fraser discusses the MSR – another way to study organic matter on Mars.

This might not come as much of a surprise, given that Jezero Crater, Perseverance’s landing spot, was specifically selected as it was thought to be a dry lake bed. However, there was variability in different areas of the crater that indicated a more complex organochemical system than scientists initially thought.

As with all articles focusing on organics on Mars, we must include a disclaimer stating that this does not mean that Martian life created these organics. Many geochemical processes can do this, and the general consensus of the science teams at Perseverance is that all of the organic signatures they’ve seen so far can be traced to creation by non-biological processes.

But, as Dr. Williams says in the press release, “We’re only scratching the surface of the organic carbon story on Mars.” Despite more than 50 years of data collection, much of this history has yet to be written. And, despite some recent setbacks in the development of Mars Sample Return, Perseverance’s follow-on mission, there will be many more opportunities to study these compounds on the Red Planet in the future.

Learn more:
UF- Study finds evidence of various organic materials on Mars
Sharma et al- Various organic-mineral associations in Jezero Crater, Mars
UT- Perseverance has collected samples from one of the best places to search for ancient life on Mars
UT- What happens if Perseverance finds life on Mars?

Main picture:
Perseverance taking a look at her surroundings with her Mastcam.
Credit – NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

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