Sedimentary rocks of the Kimberley Formation in Gale Crater, as photographed in 2015. The crater contains thick deposits of finely-laminated mudstone from fine-grained sediments deposited in a standing body of water that persisted for a long period of time. Scientists have now reported several detections of organic compounds — the building blocks of life in Gale Crater samples. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
One of the primary goals of the Curiosity mission to Mars has been to search for and hopefully identify organic compounds — the carbon-based molecules that on Earth are the building blocks of life.
No previous mission had quite the instruments and capacity needed to detect the precious organics, nor did they have the knowledge about Martian chemistry that the Curiosity team had at launch.
Nonetheless, finding organics with Curiosity was no sure things. Not only is the Martian surface bombarded with ultraviolet radiation that breaks molecules apart and destroys organics, but also a particular compound now known to be common in the soil will interfere with the essential oven-heating process used by NASA to detect organics.
So when Jennifer Eigenbrode, a biochemist and geologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and a member of the Curiosity organics-searching team, asked her ...