Organic Compounds on Mars


by Dr. Lisa Will, Resident Astronomer at the Fleet Science Center


The latest news from Mars Curiosity is awesome!

On Thursday, June 7, 2018, NASA announced the Mars Curiosity rover discovered evidence of organic compounds in the soil of Mars and methane in the Martian atmosphere. The Curiosity rover is a mobile chemistry laboratory, capable of measuring chemicals in the soil and atmosphere. It’s been doing measurements in Gale Crater since August 2012.

A few things to note:

“Martian” does not mean “alien.” The scientific term “organic” means “carbon-based” or “contains carbon (and hydrogen).” Again, not aliens.

Curiosity found organic compounds in the top five centimeters of the sedimentary layers of Gale Crater. This crater has already been determined to be the site of an ancient lake. The combination of water and organic compounds implies that this site once held all the ingredients for life as we know it. Organic molecules can be produced by biological and non-biological processes, so the latest is not evidence that life existed on Mars. However, all indications point to an ancient Mars that would have been hospitable for life.

The Curiosity rover also detected seasonal variations in the amount of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Atmospheric methane can be produced by biological processes (like here on Earth) and non-biological—including geological—processes. So, once again, this discovery does not indicate the presence of life currently on Mars. However, because methane should not last for a long time in the atmosphere, its presence in the atmosphere means something must be continually producing it. This might indicate that Mars is geologically active!

So, not aliens, but still awesome!

To keep up with the latest news about Mars and Mars Curiosity, go to the following website or follow the rover on Twitter:

Wishing you clear skies!