Brain Food: Mars Rover Digs Up Organic Material

Jul 12, 2018

Mars Rover Curiosity has dug up organic material in rocks just below the surface of what’s believed to be an ancient Martian lake bed.

Planetary Geologist Mark Salvatore and student researchers Rebecca Carmack (left) and Katie Truitt communicate with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from his Planetary Exploration Lab at Northern Arizona University about where to send the Mars Rover.
Credit Bonnie Stevens

Planetary geologist Mark Salvatore of Flagstaff says the discovery of carbon-based molecules, butane and propane, suggest they may be the result of the breakdown of larger, more complex organic molecules—the kind that could be related to life.

“These organic molecules are really the backbone to what could form life, and the fact that we found all these organic molecules implies that really the backbone and the ingredients for life are there,” he says.

Curiosity also detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. Salvatore says methane gas is commonly emitted from volcanoes, but also exhaled by living organisms.

“It’s present on Earth, mostly as a byproduct of organic life, so kind of the respiratory outputs of lots of organisms and lots of bacteria. The presence of methane on Mars, especially seasonally, could potentially be related to a biological process,” he says.

These latest findings, he says, strengthen the case that Mars once had a much more habitable environment and that Mars and Earth are very much sister planets in the evolution of the solar system.