Organic Matter Found on Mars — Two NASA Studies

For many decades, the idea of life outside Earth has intrigued many of us, but most especially scientists, astronomers, and well, sci-fi writers. For them and other Mars enthusiasts (a.k.a. people who eagerly believe that Mars can harbor life), the recent year has shown us great updates. Snow has been discovered in the planet. Soil made to simulate the planet’s conditions has grown earthworms.

Due to updates like these, some organizations are being inspired to plan ahead for life on Mars. MIT designed dome forests that will adapt to the environment there. The UAE is building a Mars-like metropolis as well, in preparation for a future in that planet. And it looks like they are bound to be more inspired as NASA releases the results of two new major studies about the Red Planet in the journal Science.

The first study centers on methane, a simple organic molecule that forms the basis for natural gas. Biological sources produce most of the methane on Earth, so researchers suspected that methane on Mars could point them towards biological sources — life! — on Mars.

Astronomers were already detecting methane in Mars as far back as 2003, but they first confirmed its presence there in 2015. After analyzing years worth of data, they realized that the methane was probably coming from pockets of ice. When these ice pockets melt during “summer” in Mars, methane slips out and methane levels go higher. Scientists say the seasonal presence of methane might clue us in on how there used to be life in the Red Planet, though the current study is still inconclusive about that.

The next study, however, also implies the idea of ancient life, as scientists find evidence of organic matter in soil that came from Mars.

In the second study, [NASA’s Curiosity rover] collected soil samples from two spots in Gale crater estimated to be about three billion years old. When Curiosity heated them up, the researchers recognized several organic molecules commonly found in Earth’s organic-rich sedimentary rock.

The discovery of methane in the Martian atmosphere and organic matter on Martian soil suggests interesting similarities between that planet and ours. Thus, it further spurs the question of life on Mars. And since the Curiosity rover is still roving around and looking for signs, one can only hope its next breakthrough will finally answer that question.

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Earthworms Born In Artificial Soil Used On Mars

As we should know by now, anything is possible on Mars. After all, we just recently discovered it snows there. In an unusual turn of events, researchers saw the birth of two earthworms living in sterile soil, made to simulate conditions on Mars.

“[Worms] grab organic matter from the top of the soil—eat it, chew it—and when they poo it out, bacteria can break it down further. Otherwise [without worms] you deplete the nutrients in the soil,” [Dutch biologist] Wamelink explains.

Trent Smith, who works on replicating Mars conditions, claims that the simulated soil is relatively accurate. However, the substance still lacks perchlorates, which is probably why the wigglers managed to reproduce.

To both Wamelink and Smith, figuring out a natural process to remove perchlorate from Martian soil remains the largest hurdle in the way of growing a sustainable agricultural system on the planet.

With much to remedy, NASA’s Veggie program has its hands full. But the space magicians never fail to surprise and hope, after worms, to bring in bumblebees.

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