Life On Mars? NASA's Perseverance Rover Makes Exciting Organic Discovery On Red Planet

hero nasa mars perseverance rover
New research concerning the search for life on Mars by NASA's Perseverance Mars rover reports detecting specific fluorescence-mineral associations that are consistent with classes of organic molecules. The finding potentially indicates different fates of carbon across environments of the Red Planet.

Perseverance has been hard at work since landing on the surface of Mars. The rover has slowly trekked its way across the Martian surface sending back incredible imagery of the planet, along with collecting rock samples that are to be sent back to Earth in order for scientists to further study them. But before those samples ever leave the surface of Mars, Perseverance is already hunting and analyzing samples of the Martian surface with one of its scientific instruments, called SHERLOC, in hopes of finding signs of past life on Mars.

It is from samples found and analyzed by SHERLOC that a research team recently reported finding evidence of organic molecules in the Red Planet's Jezero Crater. The finding potentially provides evidence of Mars' carbon cycles and the planet's ability to host life.

perseverance sherloc instrument
SHERLOC instrument onboard Perseverance.

SHERLOC is an instrument on the end of the rover's robotic arm that searches for sand-grain-sized clues in Martian rocks. It works in unison with WATSON, a camera that takes close-up images of rock textures. Together, the dynamic duo of sleuths study rock surfaces, while mapping out the presence of particular minerals and organic molecules that are carbon-based building blocks of life on Earth, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

According to a research paper in the journal Nature, the researcher's findings suggest that there could be a diversity of aromatic molecules common on the Martian surface, and these materials survive in spite of exposure to the harsh Martian environment. The potential organic molecules are mainly found within minerals that are connected to aqueous processes. This points to the processes possibly having a key role in organic synthesis, transport, or preservation.

In an interview with Newsweek, Joseph Razzell Hollis, a postdoctoral fellow at London's Natural History Museum and co-author of the new paper, remarked, "They are an exciting clue for astrobiologists since they are often thought of as building blocks of life."

region studied by perseverance image
High Resolution Imaging ScienceExperiment (HiRISE) image of the region studied with the rover.

Researchers state that there are multiple origin hypotheses for the presence of organic matter on Mars from previous meteorite and mission studies. The research paper remarks, "These include in situ formation through water-rock interactions or electrochemical reduction of CO2, or deposition from exogenous sources such as interplanetary dust and meteoritic infall, although a biotic origin has not been excluded."

Razzell Hollis does point out, "Importantly, they can be created by processes not related to life as we know it, and so organic molecules are not evidence of life on their own without sufficient extra evidence that cannot be explained by nonbiological - or abiotic - processes."

The area where Perseverance found the samples in the Jezero Crater is believed to once have been a lake basin that could have supported life. The authors of the research say the rover detected signatures in the Jezero Crater floor rocks that are consistent with a variety of different organic molecules containing one or two rings of carbon.

"While these kinds of molecules can occur naturally through pure nonbiological processes and are therefore not evidence of past life, they are still exciting to discover because they highlight the variety of organics that may have survived on Mars even after billions of years of degradation," added Razzell Hollis.

There is no doubt that NASA and the many teams of independent researchers working with the samples and data being sent back by Perseverance will continue to search for evidence of past life on the Red Planet. And as Razzell Hollis poignantly points out, once NASA is able to retrieve and send back to Earth the multitude of core samples the rover has collected, "We will be able to study them in far greater detail than the rover is capable of and hopefully answer some of the bigger questions about whether or not Jezero once contained the building blocks of life." He concluded, "But most importantly, we will know exactly where each of these samples came from on Mars."