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Mars Curiosity Rover Finds Building Blocks of Life on Red Planet

NASA announced new martian findings brought to us by the Mars Curiosity Rover.

Curiosity arrived on Mars six years ago in what Dr. Paul Mahaffy, the Director of NASA Goddard, describes as “exciting seven minutes of terror”. When the robotic emissary drilled down into the surface of Mars, it detected organic molecules and pattern consistency of methane.

After some tests, scientists see the formation of organic molecules. These are different than organics you purchase in a grocery store, which Dr. Mahaffy reminds us. The term “organic” is referred to life, because organic molecules are the building blocks of life.

NASA Goddard astrobiologist, Dr. Jennifer Eigenbrode, says that however exciting it may be to think that aliens are coming or existed at one point but this is not a guarantee. All this means is that life forms of some kind could have existed on Mars at one point, and could possibly form again.

(Gale Crater & The Landing Spot of Curiosity, Image Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Dr. Eigenbrode briefly explained how astrobiologists like herself are able to find out if there is organic matter on the planet. One way is using a Scanning Electron Microscopy, or SEM oven, and scans an electron beam which interacts with the sample.

It will then heat up the molecules so they split and reveal details about each molecule’s formation. Scientists are then able to identify each molecule piece independently using the method.

Another way is using a Gas Chromatograph, with is a long tube with a single hole the width of a human hair. Molecules travel down and come out separated, so then scientists are able to identify each individual element involved. From all of this information, astrobiologists were able to see that there were chemical bonds in both a chain and circular formation. These were all pieces of one large compound of organic matter.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Researcher, Dr. Chris Webster, fills us in on the next big surprise from Curiosity: methane. Since the beginning of our studies on Mars, scientists have been studying the different methane levels during certain times of the year. The problem they faced was that the levels were very, very low and had no patterns or consistency throughout the year. In the words of Dr. Webster, they were “misbehaving, sporadic, random patches [of methane]”.

However, during recent studies Dr. Webster explains to us that they are not only finding greater amounts of methane in the surface of Mars, but there is a pattern of what the surface of the planet is being expelled depending on the season.  

(Image Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

The methane is in Mars’ atmosphere and is taken in through two valves on the side of Curiosity. Two infrared beams scan for the spectrum of methane. The resolution for these beams is so high that when methane is detected, you can clearly see the lines from it. Keep in mind that as of now there is not enough methane to fuel our rockets, but scientists believe that in the future the methane could be used for farming and other survival needs of humankind.

You may remember that there was a similar announcement in 2014 about finding possible past life on Mars, so how is this “big announcement” different from that four years later? Dr. Eigenbrode confirms that in 2014 there were chlorinated molecules discovered, which led them to confirm that there is indeed organic matter present on the planet. However, it wasn’t the same molecules that are found in natural samples. “We were left with the motivation to keep looking,” stated Dr. Eigenbrode. “We expanded the inventory and get a better sense of how they were stored in rocks themselves.”

There are many exciting things in store with the Mars project. The new Mars rover, Mars 2020, will be launched in 2020 and land in a different part of the Red Planet. It will be able to collect samples, load them onto a rocket, and then that rocket will launch back to Earth for scientists to study. Jet Propulsion Laboratory Curiosity Project Scientist, Dr. Ashwin Vasavada, states that there is still technology that JPL needs to invent in order to make these advances in engineering and technology.

But, in the meantime, we will be waiting on the edge of our seat.


Cassie Thonen is a Space Reporter and Photojournalist for Star Letters.  She studied Studio Art and Design at Northern Illinois University, with a degree emphasis in Photography.  When she is not chasing rockets or staring at the stars, Cassie can be found perfecting her photography or with her dogs, Frankie and Chewie.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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