The Latest About Life on Mars

On October 19, the Schiaparelli EDM lander attempted to land on Mars.  Unfortunately, the European Space Agency has now confirmed that the lander crashed on the Red Planet.

To date, every Mars lander with an analytical module has included an Agilent column.  Schiaparelli included an Agilent JW CP-Chirasil-DEX-CB column and an Agilent Micro-GC TCD detector.  Scientists had hoped that Schiaparelli would tell us more about potential life on Mars.

The 2012 Mars Curiosity rover had detected organic compounds in near-surface sedimentary rocks on the planet, echoing previous findings from the Viking (1976) and Phoenix (2009) missions.  However, there is ongoing scientific debate about the origins of these compounds.  There are three possibilities:

  • The organic matter is from terrestrial (Earth) contamination
  • The organic matter is from meteorite activity
  • The organic matter is indigenous to Mars

The trouble, of course, is that these samples cannot be returned to Earth.  They must be examined onsite or in laboratory simulations.

Three recent studies all used an Agilent gas chromatograph and Agilent mass selective detector in their analyses.

German scientists acknowledge that “controversy continues” as to whether chloromethane (CH3Cl) detected by the Mars landers is indicative of organic matter indigenous to Mars.  Using pyrolysis (decomposition at high temperatures) analysis, the scientists confirmed that the CH3Cl emissions could be attributed to organic matter in meteoritic debris.  However, they were unable to rule out the possibility of indigenous origin.

Similarly, scientists from MIT and NASA examined precursors to these chlorohydrocarbons and concluded that they cannot all be accounted for by terrestrial causes. This suggests either a Martian or meteoritic origin, but again the scientists could not definitively conclude which it was.

UK scientists believe that the Martian subsurface could be more favorable than the planet’s surface for discovering organic materials.  Subsurface materials are often brought to the planet’s surface by impact events such as meteorites.  However, a simulation on Earth found that organic matter is often compromised and rendered undetectable by the considerable shock pressures associated with impact events.

The question of whether Mars has – or ever had – indigenous organic compounds continues to fascinate us.  With each advance in technology and exploration, the answer appears closer.  But for now, it remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Today’s blog topic was suggested by Agilent employee Norbert Reuter, who lives two miles from the European Space Operation Center.  As manager of global technical support for Agilent’s chemistries and supplies, Norbert says that Agilent has the best columns for space exploration!


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