Tantalizing Organic Compounds Found on Mars

The NASA/ESA Perseverance rover on xxx. New findings tell of the presence of organic material — the building blocks of life — in several locations at Jezero Crater — for the first time found in igneous rock.  The long-ago environment when the organics were deposited were deemed to have been “habitable.” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

When searching for signs of ancient life on Mars, NASA scientists increasingly focus on organic material — the carbon-based compounds that are the building blocks of life.  Organics were found by the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater, and now new papers report they have also been identified by the instruments of the Perseverance rover in very different kinds of rock in Jezero Crater.

Unlike the Gale Crater organics that were found in sedimentary rocks, these newly found specimens are in igneous rocks — formed when molten rock cools and crystallizes — and are mixed with other compounds known to preserve organics well.

These rock samples are part of the NASA and European Space Agency Mars Sample Return mission, and so they could be brought to Earth in the future for more intensive study. Scientists are excited about what might some day be found.

The new findings about organics and the geology of Jezero Crater are part of a trio of articles in the journal Science published Wednesday.

The lead author of one of the papers, Michael Tice of Texas A&M University, gave this overview of what the Perseverance team is reporting:

“These three papers show that samples collected in the floor of Jezero should be able to tell us a lot about whether living organisms ever inhabited rocks under the surface of the crater over the past several billion years,”  he wrote to me.

The paper he led, Tice said, shows that small amounts of water passed through those rocks at three different times, and that conditions at each of those times could have supported life. “Even more importantly, minerals were formed from the water that are known to be able to preserve organic matter and even fossils on Earth.”

Different kinds of carbon-based organic compounds were viewed within a rock called “Garde” by SHERLOC, one of the instruments on the end of the robotic arm aboard the Perseverance rover. The rover used its drill grind away a patch of rock so that SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) could analyze its interior.

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PIXL: A New NASA Instrument For Ferreting Out Clues of Ancient Life on Mars


Extremely high definition images of the com ponents of rocks and mud as taken by PIXL, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry .   On the Mars 2020 rover, PIXL  will have significantly greater capabilities than previous similar instruments sent to Mars.  Rather than reporting bulk compositions averaged over several square centimeters, it will identify precisely where in the rock each element resides. With spatial resolution of about 300 micrometers, PIXL will conduct the first ever petrology investigations on Mars, correlating elemental compositions with visible rock textures . (NASA)J

The search for life, or signs of past life beyond Earth is now a central issue in space science, is central to the mission of NASA, and is actually a potentially breakthrough discovery in the making  for humanity.    The scientific stakes could hardly be higher.

But identifying evidence of ancient microbial life – and refuting all reasonable non-biological explanations for that evidence — is stunningly difficult.

As recent wrangling over Earth’s oldest rocks in Greenland has shown, determining the provenance of a deep-time biosignature even here on Earth is extraordinarily difficult. In 2016, scientists reported discovery of 3,700 million yr-old stromatolites in the Isua geological area of Greenland.

Just three years later, a field workshop held at the Isua discovery site brought experts from around the world to examine the intriguing structures and see whether the evidence cleared the very high bar needed to accept a biological interpretation. While the scientists who published the initial discovery held their ground, not one of the other scientists felt convinced by the evidence before them.  Watching and listening as the different scientists presented their cases was a tutorial in the innumerable factors involved in coming to any conclusion.

Now think about trying to wrestle with similar or more complex issues on Mars, of how scientists can reach of level of confidence to report that a sign (or hint) of past life has apparently been found.

As it turns out, the woman who led the Greenland expedition — Abigail Allwood of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab — is also one of the key players in the upcoming effort to find biosignatures on Mars.  She is the principal investigator of the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) that will sit on the extendable arm of the rover, and it has capabilities to see in detail the composition of Mars samples as never before.

The instrument has, of course, been rigorously tested to understand what it can and cannot do. … Read more

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