Space

NASA Finds Organic Salts Are Likely Present on Mars – Remnants of Ancient Martian Microbial Life?

Curiosity Finds Ancient Organic Material

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Salts Could Be Important Piece of Martian Organic Puzzle

A NASA team has found that organic, or carbon-containing, salts are likely present on Mars, with implications for the Red Planet’s past habitability.

A NASA team has found that organic salts are likely present on Mars. Like shards of ancient pottery, these salts are the chemical remnants of organic compounds, such as those previously detected by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Organic compounds and salts on Mars could have formed by geologic processes or be remnants of ancient microbial life.

Besides adding more evidence to the idea that there once was organic matter on Mars, directly detecting organic salts would also support modern-day Martian habitability, given that on Earth, some organisms can use organic salts, such as oxalates and acetates, for energy.

Curiosity’s Color View of Martian Dune After Crossing It: This look back at a dune that NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover drove across was taken by the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on February 9, 2014 – the 538th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“If we determine that there are organic salts concentrated anywhere on Mars, we’ll want to investigate those regions further, and ideally drill deeper below the surface where organic matter could be better preserved,” said James M. T. Lewis, an organic geochemist who led the research, published on March 30, 2021, in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Lewis is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Lewis’s lab experiments and analysis of data from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a portable chemistry lab inside Curiosity’s belly, indirectly point to the presence of organic salts. But directly identifying them on Mars is hard to do with instruments like SAM, which heats Martian soil and rocks to release gases that reveal the composition of these samples. The challenge is that heating organic salts produces only simple gases that could be released by other ingredients in Martian soil.


Mass spectrometers are a useful tool that NASA scientists rely on to find out if a sample contains certain molecules. Credit: NASA

However, Lewis and his team propose that another Curiosity instrument that uses a different technique to peer at Martian soil, the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument, or CheMin for short, could detect certain organic salts if they are present in sufficient amounts. So far, CheMin has not detected organic salts.

Finding organic molecules, or their organic salt remnants, is essential in NASA’s search for life on other worlds. But this is a challenging task on the surface of Mars, where billions of years of radiation have erased or broken apart organic matter. Like an archeologist digging up pieces of pottery, Curiosity collects Martian soil and rocks, which may contain tiny chunks of organic compounds, and then SAM and other instruments identify their chemical structure.

Using data that Curiosity beams down to Earth, scientists like Lewis and his team try to piece together these broken organic pieces. Their goal is to infer what type of larger molecules they may once have belonged to and what those molecules could reveal about the ancient environment and potential biology on Mars.

“We’re trying to unravel billions of years of organic chemistry,” Lewis said, “and in that organic record there could be the ultimate prize: evidence that life once existed on the Red Planet.”

While some experts have predicted for decades that ancient organic compounds are preserved on Mars, it took experiments by Curiosity’s SAM to confirm this. For example, in 2018, NASA Goddard astrobiologist Jennifer L. Eigenbrode led an international team of Curiosity mission scientists who reported the detection of myriad molecules containing an essential element of life as we know it: carbon. Scientists identify most carbon-containing molecules as “organic.”


Since arriving at Mars in 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover has drilled into rocks in search of organics – molecules containing carbon. Now, Curiosity has discovered ancient organics that have been preserved in rocks for billions of years. This finding helps scientists better understand the habitability of early Mars, and it paves the way for future missions to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Dan Gallagher

“The fact that there’s organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old rocks, and we found it at the surface, is a very promising sign that we might be able to tap more information from better preserved samples below the surface,” Eigenbrode said. She worked with Lewis on this new study.

Analyzing Organic Salts in the Lab

Decades ago, scientists predicted that organic compounds on Mars could be breaking down into salts. These salts, they argued, would be more likely to persist on the Martian surface than big, complex molecules, such as the ones that are associated with the functioning of living things.

If there were organic salts present in Martian samples, Lewis and his team wanted to find out how getting heated in the SAM oven could affect what types of gases they would release. SAM works by heating samples to upwards of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius). The heat breaks apart molecules, releasing some of them as gases. Different molecules release different gases at specific temperatures; thus, by looking at which temperatures release which gases, scientists can infer what the sample is made of.

First Photograph Taken On Mars Surface: This is the first photograph ever taken on the surface of the planet Mars. It was obtained by Viking 1 just minutes after the spacecraft landed successfully early today [July 20, 1976]. Credit: NASA/JPL

“When heating Martian samples, there are many interactions that can happen between minerals and organic matter that could make it more difficult to draw conclusions from our experiments, so the work we’re doing is trying to pick apart those interactions so that scientists doing analyses on Mars can use this information,” Lewis said.

Lewis analyzed a range of organic salts mixed with an inert silica powder to replicate a Martian rock. He also investigated the impact of adding perchlorates to the silica mixtures. Perchlorates are salts containing chlorine and oxygen, and they are common on Mars. Scientists have long worried that they could interfere with experiments seeking signs of organic matter.

Indeed, researchers found that perchlorates did interfere with their experiments, and they pinpointed how. But they also found that the results they collected from perchlorate-containing samples better matched SAM data than when perchlorates were absent, bolstering the likelihood that organic salts are present on Mars.

Additionally, Lewis and his team reported that organic salts could be detected by Curiosity’s instrument CheMin. To determine the composition of a sample, CheMin shoots X-rays at it and measures the angle at which the X-rays are diffracted toward the detector.

Curiosity’s SAM and CheMin teams will continue to search for signals of organic salts as the rover moves into a new region on Mount Sharp in Gale Crater.

Soon, scientists will also have an opportunity to study better-preserved soil below the Martian surface. The European Space Agency’s forthcoming ExoMars rover, which is equipped to drill down to 6.5 feet, or 2 meters, will carry a Goddard instrument that will analyze the chemistry of these deeper Martian layers. NASA’s Perseverance rover doesn’t have an instrument that can detect organic salts, but the rover is collecting samples for future return to Earth, where scientists can use sophisticated lab machines to look for organic compounds.

Reference: “Pyrolysis of Oxalate, Acetate, and Perchlorate Mixtures and the Implications for Organic Salts on Mars” by J. M. T. Lewis, J. L. Eigenbrode, G. M. Wong, A. C. McAdam, P. D. Archer, B. Sutter, M. Millan, R. H. Williams, M. Guzman, A. Das, E. B. Rampe, C. N. Achilles, H. B. Franz, S. Andrejkovičová, C. A. Knudson and P. R. Mahaffy, 30 March 2021, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
DOI: 10.1029/2020JE006803

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  • I guess that depends on what desert on earth has organic salt underneath it...Lmbo. It amazes how space monkeys believe this nonsense. We can control a rover millions of miles through the vacuum of space with a computer,but cant hardly get signals on earth. Time to wake up from yalls science fiction fantasy. We have all been duped. They are liars. You are programmed little monkeys and you dont care.

    • Yep, millions of people are in on the same hoax. Everything you don't understand is a hoax. How can your messages post here? You must be a hoax too.

      • They sure are all in on the same hoax. You dont get it. Learn signs, symbols and numbers. The elite control everything you ding bat. What you see on TV. Your programming in schools. You are fed machine. You only repeat what you are fed.. lmbo. Seriously dude. Put some effort towards some research of your own and not what you have been fed. A spinning water ball moving though infinite nothing traveling at 67,000 mph though that same infinite nothing. What a joke. And you accuse flat earthers of insanity...lmbo The whole made up bs of gravity goes agianst your very senses. Look up in the dam sky. We are not moving. Btw Rovers and helicopters that fix themselves millions of miles away. Lmbo Dam you people are the nutty ones to beleive the bull***.

  • Wow JY - I didn't think you could make a tin foil hat fit that tight. Does it help you pick up your favorite talk radio station?

    • Actually the tinfoil hat belongs to the programmed masses that beleive in Outer space. You say I a have a tin foil hat on when you beleive we live on a spinning water ball with magic called gravity holding us to the Ball. Get a grip. You are programmed and indoctrinated by the lies. There is solid firmament above us. And above the firmament is water. Not space. You have been fooled by the luciferians that control the world system. All we get in CGI. Lol. Give me a break. Wake up out science fiction fantasy.

      • And I thought it was only Twitter that had people posting absolute nonsense on it. Thanks for proving me wrong JY

        • The nonsense is the lies that you are being fed by the MSM on a daily basis and you beleive it. You are being lies to and dont care.

  • Can't wait until we hit the poles with rovers. If there was life, I'd bet it's best preserved where there's a chance ice has had a chance to help protect it.

    • So this rover fixes itself? Its a super machine. Lmbo. Give a me a break. The masses are so dam brainwashed. And it's being controlled a millions miles away by a computer? Lmbo You folks beleive anything. Fairy tales much.

  • Jy you've been spoon fed tRump pablum which caused common sense to leave your facilities. The election was lost by the biggest crybaby ever. He will not run in 2024 cuz he won't be alive. Cancer has no favorites.

    • I dont have a clue what the hell Trump has to do with your Science Fiction fantasy of fake space. Lmbo. First of all you need to learn there is no left/right paradigm. No Republican or Democrat. It's all an illusion. Your votes do not matter. The controllers of the world system are fooling us all. You actually beleive we are spinning at 1000mph while traveling through infinite nothing at 67,000 mph? Goes against your senses. Look up in the dam sky. We are no moving...wow

    • I dont have a clue what the hell Trump has to do with your Science Fiction fantasy of fake space. Lmbo. First of all you need to learn there is no left/right paradigm. No Republican or Democrat. It's all an illusion. Your votes do not matter. The controllers of the world system are fooling us all. You actually beleive we are spinning at 1000mph while traveling through infinite nothing at 67,000 mph? Goes against your senses. Look up in the dam sky. We are no moving...

  • There are people who believe space is fake. Can one imagine what it must be like to be the only person on earth with a thought process. Baaaaaa to them

  • You hAve been fooled into believing that space is real. No one can go into outer space. Even the rockets don't go straight up.

    • They go straight in the Ocean after their curve. Lmbo.. That's exactly why the liars do it near the water.

      • Show yourself some proof the world is flat, there is no sun, and we are surrounded by water.

        • Show me proof of fake space? You cant. It's all CGI and smoke and mirrors. I can prove we are not moving. Look up in the sky. Water always finds its level also. You have no proof we are moving 1000mph except for the fake magic Masonic math they use on the masses to make the sh*t look real. Most people have no idea what that fake math bullsh*t is all about, so they dont dispute it. They just go along with it. Programmed monkeys. Prove we are moving 67,000 mph though infinite nothing. Lmbo ridiculous. All you are getting is Hollywood productions and pretty poors ones if you ask me. All the money they steal. They could get better CGI.

        • Show me proof of fake space? You cant. It's all CGI and smoke and mirrors. I can prove we are not moving. Look up in the sky. Water always finds its level also. You have no proof we are moving 1000mph except for the fake magic Masonic math they use on the masses to make the sh*t look real. Most people have no idea what that fake math bullsh*t is all about, so they dont dispute it. They just go along with it. Programmed monkeys. Prove we are moving 67,000 mph though infinite nothing. Lmbo ridiculous. All you are getting is Hollywood productions and pretty poors ones if you ask me. They could get better CGI.

        • Show me proof of fake space? You cant. It's all CGI and smoke and mirrors. I can prove we are not moving. Look up in the sky. Water always finds its level also. You have no proof we are moving 1000mph except for the fake magic Masonic math they use on the masses to make the sh*t look real. Most people have no idea what that fake math bullsh*t is all about, so they dont dispute it. They just go along with it. Programmed monkeys. Prove we are moving 67,000 mph though infinite nothing. Lmbo ridiculous. All you are getting is Hollywood productions and pretty poors ones if you ask me. They could get better CGI.

  • If the earth were spinning, why does it take the same amount of time to travel from the east coast to the west coast and back. It should take longer when traveling from San Francisco to New York if the earth is rotating. Think about it.

By
Lonnie Shekhtman, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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