NASA’s Perseverance rover has detected evidence that may point to the presence of organic molecules on Mars, a discovery that helps strengthen the possibility that life could have once existed there.
Since its arrival on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021, Perseverance has collected several rock core samples to help determine if signs of life on Mars—either past or present—might exist on Earth’s planetary neighbor. Last year, it was reported that four samples had been collected from an ancient river delta within the Jezero crater, a location that NASA hoped to be a promising location for the Mars rover’s investigations.
Now, a new study that focused on recent data collected by Perseverance reports the possible instrumental detection of organic molecules, according to research led by University of Florida astrobiologist Amy Williams.
The detection was made with the rover’s Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals instrument, or SHERLOC.
Last summer, SHERLOC was successful in detecting organic molecules that were correlated spatially with sulfate minerals present in samples collected near Wild Cat Ridge, a large stone prominence located within the Jezero crater.
Now, Williams and her colleagues say the latest data points to the presence of an even more intricate geothermal cycle on Mars than previous research has suggested, meaning that a variety of different potential “reservoirs” of organic compounds may exist on the planet.
Williams and her colleagues recently published their findings in the journal Nature.
Among the study’s key findings had been that signals were found that the team deemed to be consistent with aqueous processes and the molecules associated with them, raising the chances that water may have existed on Mars in the past and that several building blocks of life may have remained present for a longer duration than once believed.
Notably, the study detected signals consistent with molecules linked to aqueous processes, indicating that water may have played a key role in the diverse range of organic matter on Mars. The key building blocks necessary for life may have persisted on Mars for a far more extended period than previously thought.
“Our findings suggest there may be a diversity of aromatic molecules prevalent on the Martian surface, and these materials persist despite exposure to surface conditions,” the team reports in their Nature paper.
Williams said the possible detection of several organic carbon molecules in her team’s recent research has several important implications, which include understanding “the potential of the planet to host life throughout its history.”
While the findings are among the most promising yet as far as evidence that could point to long term habitability for life forms on Mars, the researchers caution that organic matter can be formed in other ways, which include geological processes and chemical reactions, each of which seem to be more likely regarding their presence on the Red Planet.
However, since the discovery of organic molecules had never been a high expectation prior to the arrival of Perseverance, their detection is promising for researchers like Williams.
“We didn’t initially expect to detect these potential organics signatures in the Jezero crater floor,” Williams said in a statement, “but their diversity and distribution in different units of the crater floor now suggest potentially different fates of carbon across these environments.”