Have NASA discovered alien food on Mars?

12 June 2018

The Curiosity Rover has found organic matter on Mars. Chris Smith talked to Naked Scientists Podcast panellists Jess Wade and Philipe Bujold to get their thoughts on the mission, and what is might mean for the future...

Chris - I just want to ask everyone. Did anyone catch the news recently that NASA think that they have got the best evidence yet that there may have been life on Mars, or at least they think they’ve found food for aliens? Did you see this, this paper in Science?

Fran - Yeah

Chris - The Curiosity mission which has found this interesting material?

Jess - I saw it so I’m hoping you guys saw it too!? NASA reported that they’ve actually found these organic small molecules on the surface of Mars. This is kind of crazily exciting because Mars has incredibly strong radiation. They have a really really thin atmosphere for whatever reason. They don’t have a magnetic field interestingly, and that is the cause of their very thin atmosphere. So they’re being bombarded by particles from the Sun and cosmic rays from Space. And what you wouldn’t expect in that kind of situation is for there to be any kind of organic material that could possibly survive. And Curiosity went up a long long time ago and it can only see so far. Curiosity can only dig about 5cm of the surface of Mars, so it’s particularly exciting that within that 5cm you have these organic materials. And kind of the future of space travel to Mars in 2020 there are going to be three big missions: NASA, ESA and China are going up. And the ESA drill, the European Space Agency one, can drill 2 metres into the surface of Mars. So everything we saw in this 5cm - wow crazy exciting, this is mind blowing - but imagine what we can see 2 metres further down where this radiation doesn’t hit, and that’s just so cool.

Chris - Philipe?

Philipe - Going back to the 2 metres down. Would it be possible basically that the tiny particles they’ve found now would be particles that were much bigger and got degraded over time, so more complex organic molecules?

Jess - Yeah, it could be. I mean these are kind of little segments of organic materials that we’re really interested in. I guess looking further down we’re interested in what kind of rocks are there and how similar they are to ones that are on Earth. But certainly the kind of science payload of all of these missions is so cool, right. They drill down, they collect this tiny amount of material. They take it into what looks to us like an egg box and then in there they have a raman spectrometer. They can do mass spectroscopy. They can do all these crazily precise measurements to work out exactly what that is.

And the funniest thing is there was a boy during my PhD, doing a PhD with me and he was looking at one particular small molecule, one particular part of a polymer. And the whole time he was looking at this and were were like, "you are so boring right! Get a new material, that is the most boring thing ever!" And now he’s working at NASA, at the Jet Propulsion Lab, programming for the new Mars rover and this particular molecule was the one they found!


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