Curiosity Found Organic Molecules on Mars! Now What?


[♪ INTRO] Last week, NASA did a thing that, for us in
the science communication world, is always a little bit of a mixed bag. They were like, “We’ve got some really
big Mars news,” and then the entire world goes crazy and there’s like, “There’s
life on M…!” And then you’re like, “No, they probably
would do this a different way if there was life on Mars,” but we’ll listen, and it
will be exciting, but probably not in precisely the way you’re thinking. And it was cool! But let’s get this out of the way in the
beginning: The Curiosity rover did not find evidence of past or present life on Mars. And when the headlines said ‘Organic Matter
on Mars’, for non-science speakers that can be confusing, and they’re like, “So,
like, organic matter like a little bit of, like, snot? Like, what is this on Mars?” No, it’s carbon compounds. If there was life on Mars, you would find
out about it in a really big way, I promise. And we’d be here. But, Curiosity did find even more evidence
to indicate the planet could’ve been habitable billions of years ago. The results came in two papers published last
Friday in the journal Science. And while they don’t prove anything about
life on the Red Planet, they do show some of the strides Curiosity is making in understanding
Mars’ history. Since it landed on Mars in 2012, Curiosity
has been hanging out in Gale Crater, which planetary scientists are pretty sure is an
ancient lake bed. Among its duties, the rover has been drilling
into rocks and sniffing the atmosphere to detect organic molecules. These are carbon-containing compounds that,
on Earth, are often produced by life. So finding them on Mars might suggest life
once existed there, too, although they can also be made by non-biological processes. A key one is methane. We’ve known that there’s methane in Mars’s
atmosphere for a while. But now, Curiosity has shown that the amount,
at least in the vicinity of Gale Crater, varies seasonally. In the northern hemisphere, it peaks in summer
months and drops near the winter. The paper’s authors suspect the variations
come from methane being stored deep underground, and from temperature changes on Mars’s surface
that allow it to flow upward. For example, the gas could get trapped underground
in icy crystals called clathrates, which melt come summer to free the gas. At the moment, it’s impossible to know if
this methane comes from biological or non-biological sources. But we do know it’s getting replenished
somehow. The molecules only survive for a few hundred
years before sunlight breaks them down, so something has to be making more methane. Even if there is no life producing it, though,
this is still very cool news. For one, Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t have
a seasonal variation of many molecules, so Mars gets to be kind of special that way. Also, if the variation does come from geologic
processes, it would mean that Mars’s interior isn’t as dead as we thought. There would likely have to be some kind of
heat source down there to drive those methane-producing reactions. So it’s probably not aliens, but it’s
probably some very cool geology. And that’s the result of one of the papers. The other involved organic molecules more
complex than methane. A few years ago, Curiosity ran tests that
suggested larger organics existed on Mars’s surface, but the data was contaminated by
other chemicals. Now, we have some clearer results. Curiosity found these new compounds by drilling
into 3.5 billion-year-old rocks called mudstone. Mudstone is a sedimentary rock that forms
from silt accumulating at the bottom of a lake. Unlike other rocks on Mars, it’s likely
a better place to store organic compounds. Now, this could be because of a few reasons,
including, like, protective interactions with other molecules. After Curiosity powderized and extracted the
samples, its tool suite, called SAM, heated them to more than 500°C. That was more than enough to get them to release
their organics. Then, SAM could analyze exactly what molecules
came out. Some of the compounds identified included
thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains. But they likely started off as something else. See, Curiosity collected its samples from
less than 5 centimeters below the ground. Anything that close to the surface is affected
by radiation from space, which, along with other chemicals in the dirt, breaks down organic
matter over time. So most likely, the compounds Curiosity found
are really pieces of larger organic molecules, although we don’t know what they started
out as. If it were capable of drilling farther down,
where radiation isn’t a problem, maybe the rover could have found some of the original
organics. But the fact that some bits and pieces survived
long enough to be detected reveals that Gale Crater might have once held all the necessary
chemical building blocks for life. Whether or not life actually existed, though,
that’s still up in the air. Just like the methane, there’s no way to
know where these organic molecules came from. Many of them are found elsewhere in the solar
system, like in interplanetary dust and on meteoroids. So it could be that Curiosity happened to
find the remnants of a meteorite impact, not of life. At a minimum, the study shows that traces
of Martian organics, whether they come from tiny Martians or just chemistry, can survive
for billions of years, to some degree. Luckily for us, we have a lot of future missions
planned that can help us dig into that matter. Or, rather, drill into it. NASA’s InSight lander, which launched back
in May, will land on Mars in late November. While it won’t be able to determine chemical
compositions, it will be able to drill down farther than ever before: 5 meters, to lower
a heat probe. So it might be able to help us figure out
some of that seasonal methane puzzle. Also, the ESA’s ExoMars Rover is slated
to launch in 2020, and while it will only be able to drill down 2 meters, it’ll have
the tools to extract rocks and analyze what they’re made of. So hopefully, the fact that it will be able
to go, like, 40 times deeper than Curiosity means we’ll be able to find more intact
organic molecules. Finally, NASA’s 2020 Rover won’t be doing
any deep drilling, but it will have technology to hunt for and understand any Martian organics
it comes across on or near the surface. So hang on you tiny, probably dead Martians! If you ever existed, we’re coming for you! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Space! If you’d like to keep following the latest
discoveries in astronomy and planetary science, we make a news episode like this every Friday! To make sure you never miss one, you can go
to youtube.com/scishowspace to subscribe. [♪ OUTRO]

100 thoughts on “Curiosity Found Organic Molecules on Mars! Now What?”

  1. Hi, I really need to know. Do all life needs water? Could another liquid do? Like lets say a planet is too hot and it's not possible for it to have water. Couldn't there be another heat resistant liquid that functions well enough to support life like water does?

  2. "If you ever existed, we are coming from you!" I know we are a warlike species but damn… let at least the dead ones rest in peace…

  3. Am I understanding this correctly? Is NASA sending a probe doing nothing new and Europe is sending ground-breaking probes?

  4. How could there be life or how there was if there isn't gravity and air? Either I'm stupid or I just haven't found answer yet.

  5. There is a dormant microbial colony under the surface – similar to viruses. It wiped out life on Mars long ago – and is waiting to hitch a ride.

  6. A kid's microscope only costs about $50. You'd think somebody at NASA would be smart enough to put an ordinary microscope on board one of these billion dollar probes and do an actual search for life on Mars.

  7. "hanging out in the crater" Yeah right NASA. Some dickhead drove it in there and now you don't how to get it out. Just pretending you intended it the whole time.. I'm on to you!

  8. this is taking too damn long, we can't go on and send rovers after rovers just to sniff something that maybe could possibly be bacterial farts… .. let's go there and actually look for life or dont bother wasting everyone's time

  9. Lol I had a stupid question because there's no weight in Space couldn't they somehow drag Mars Closer to earth haha?

  10. I always hear about all my science updates on twitter and then you guys come update the youtube world like a day later and it's kind of a funny thing to see. I get to have nostalgia on NASA updates every Friday.

  11. There was an alien race that was extremely advanced on mars but that species died off. There y’all go.

  12. It would be surprising if scientist find a message saying we actually lived on Mars and ruined it and then moved to earth when we exhausted all of Mars resources.

  13. Now it's about time for NASA to cancel all their most ambitious missions after spending several billions on them.

  14. why don`t they just dissect the fossil in that meteor . and if all the water and chemical evidence was billions of years ago all winds and suns radiation would have blown it all way

  15. Why don't we send a missile to mars and make a crater. That sounds easier, cheaper, and more effective than any other digging robot we've come up with. Is it because of laws about weapons in space?

  16. Scishow Space/Math question: How many rover/explorer missions does it take before it was cheaper/faster/better to just send a manned mission (assuming, of course, we had the tech to get them there, ability to do the job for 6ish months and get them back relatively safely)?

  17. Sending the most life destroying toxic radioactive plutonium powered robot to marz to look for life is so sickly ironic it shows how our species should stay home and write 1000 times: 'I will not pollute other plants in the name of science, I will not…'. What life there is will be killed by plutonium. If a Martian sent a life destroying robot to explore life on earth spreading radioactive toxins around it would be considered an act of war. Come on guys….like hddddr, never heard of the prime directive ha? Humanity, doomed.

  18. Maybe, one day, they'll run out of the news they haven't shared with us yet, and maybe we'll get to know now, instead of – when they think the public can handle it at some point in the future they can't say.

    They knew about water decades ago, and that it was running water. They knew about the microbes forever now as well. At some point we'll be told about the life that is there, right now, being alive in some form that we know as living, and life.

  19. Is anyone else over the discovery of organic molecules? At this point we know they form pretty much anywhere there is a carbon and even small amounts of UV light. I'm not suprised by this discovery in the slightest.

  20. "Hang on you tiny probably dead martians, if you ever existed were coming for you" Hahaha Awesome quote Hank

  21. Still waiting for a sample from Mars to be taken all the way back to Earth. The scientific value of a mission like that is much more than the sample. It'd be a proof of concept for a shuttle to Mars and back.

  22. Quit wasting our time and resources on Mars and start right here on earth studying the ocean. We treat the ocean like a garbage hole and know little about it. It is right here and much easier to study and it already has life in it We don't need to escape earth and run away to Mars when we have a beautiful planet that needs just a little care and attention.

  23. This is a facinating place, Mars. Thank you for your reports. Question; Are places they're looking for past and present life areas where the weak magnetosphere's are present?

  24. There are organic molecules in interstellar space. Why wouldn't we find organic molecules on Mars?

  25. I know you guys probably signed NDAs with NASA but I can read between the lines. COWS ON MARS CONFIRMED!

  26. In Antarctica we have to drill hundreds of feet beneath the surface to get to old signs of plant life and sea shells, how can curiosity find anything useful when it can only drill a few inches??

  27. There is organic material all over the universe… because most materials are made from exploding stars…

  28. It might be a stupid question but wouldn't it be interesting to study the methane that was released to see if it has clues on what created it?
    Maybe some other compounds produced and released along with it or, for instance, if it was produced by some sort of micro organism it would be possible that part of it gets trapped and released together with the gas.

  29. BUT they did find metabolism in the 70's – although they didn't find the organics at the time because of the salts destroying the organics when the soil was heated by the test (as it was designed for that mission). They therefore concluded, no life. Combine the two… and…….

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