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The surface of Mars might be rid of organic compounds.  (Source: Scrape TV)
Scientists propose new theory as to why we can't find organic organisms on the 'red planet'

The ongoing question as to why scientists cannot find organic material on the surface of Mars may be answered after all.

Published in the journal Astrobiology, the article is titled "Photocatalytic Decomposition of Carboxylated Molecules on Light-Exposed Martian Regolith and its Relation to Methane Production on Mars." Written by Ilya Shkrob, Sergey Chemerisov, and Timothy Marin, from Argonne National Laboratory and Benedictine University in Illinois, the three conclude that there may be no 'safe haven' for such organic molecules on Mars.

On Earth, plant-like organisms use photosynthesis to covert carbon and water into carbon dioxide. However, the opposite is proposed to happen on mars. The iron oxides, well known for giving the planet its red color, are photocatalysts. They use the ultraviolet light, absorbed through the Mars' thin atmosphere, as energy to oxidize organic compounds trapped in soil particles, thereby converting them to gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

"This is an interesting result and may be an important step in solving the enduring mystery of organics on Mars," says Christopher McKay, "We see organics in many places in the solar system but have not been able to detect them on Mars--the planet that we think had the most Earth-like conditions. Why? Could it be our instrument approach has been wrong? Or could it be that there is some chemistry on Mars that is actively destroying organics? This work points toward this latter explanation."

He goes on to explain that Mars might have, in fact, a self cleaning surface, which means to find any evidence of carbon-containing molecules, astronauts will have to dig deep. McKay is the Senior Editor of Astrobiology and a Research Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.

The authors suggest that instead of looking for organic organisms to prove life on Mars, other methods for determining life may have to be employed. In essence, many have been looking for something (proteins, amino acids, organic compounds) that was never there to begin with. It is now reasonable to suggest deep drilling tactics, that will dig up rocks and soils that have retained the preserved organics. With this new study, many hope we are one step closer to determining if life is, or ever was, present on the Martian planet.

Astrobiology is a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. The article is available online for free at The journal is published ten times a year in print and online.

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need to dig
By kattanna on 6/14/2010 11:16:19 AM , Rating: 1
expecting to find "life" on the surface was a long shot anyways given mars lack of a magnetic field to protect it from solar radiation and solar flares.

while life has proven tough and able to survive in all sorts of conditions, that high level of constant radiation would make it extremely difficult at best. though, once we do get feet on mars and can do some real exploring i would not be shocked to find some microbe that found a way to survive on the surface.

when we need to dig down to layers that are not exposed to such radiation, then we will have better luck im guessing.

RE: need to dig
By Reclaimer77 on 6/14/10, Rating: 0
RE: need to dig
By CrazyBernie on 6/14/2010 4:18:16 PM , Rating: 3
Considering the size of the universe, I would find it more improbable that there isn't life elsewhere.

RE: need to dig
By boobo on 6/15/2010 5:24:09 PM , Rating: 3
Well, he wrote "Solar System," not "Universe."

The flaw in his logic was that they were not looking for life. They were looking for organic compounds and those have already been found outside of Earth, almost all over the solar system, except on Mars. That's why they were surprised.

RE: need to dig
By MozeeToby on 6/14/2010 4:59:07 PM , Rating: 4
Organic compounds is not the same as saying life. Life, as far as we know, is quite rare in the universe; at the very least we've only definitively found it here on Earth.

Organic compounds, on the other hand, are almost literally everywhere. The surface of Titan, the atmosphere of Jupiter, the cores of Comets, even loose in the interstellar gas. We expect to find organic compounds on Mars because we find them on Venus, Earth, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and a dozen other environments throughout the solar system.

RE: need to dig
By MrBlastman on 6/15/2010 9:35:39 AM , Rating: 2
Is it really that hard for scientist to accept Earth is, and always was, the only life bearing planet in this solar system?

Well you see, that's just what Science is. Hypothesizing about a concept and then seeking out the prove or disprove it.

If man had sat here on this rock for millenia and looked at things and just grunted and moved on, throwing a rock off a cliff onto buffalo heads or grabbing their women by long, ragged locks, lugging them into a cave and then savagely impregnating them time after time, never once wondering... "why?" or "if?," well, we'd still be there and not typing about it on the internet.

What you suggest is instead complacency rather than asking those all important questions.

That is dangerous thinking. Very dangerous. It is the type of thinking that will doom us to being stuck here on earth.

Science needs to ask those big questions and then--it needs DATA to quantify it. It is easy to sit around and through speculation, say--gee, it must be so because the numbers seem to suggest it.

Well, that's the thing... what ARE the numbers? We don't know them! The numbers haven't been discovered yet so we can't quantify anything other than through probability models. This is as bad as what Einstein alluded to towards Quantum Mechanics: "God doesn't roll dice." As such, since we don't fully understand forces or actions at the Quantum level due to our inability to properly perceive through observation, probability models were born.

Has that stopped our quest for further proof of reality and attempting to physically quantify them? No, not at all (though string theorists would have you thinking they can't--but, knowing mankind, with time we'll find a way to quantify it).

That is what Science is. Finding the data, quantifying the data, extrapolating it into hard facts we can model and then, only then, forming an absolute conclusion.

Don't think dangerously, like you suggest you do. We can't just sit here on our rock and think--hey, the sun sets on the horizon, I guess that's the edge of the Earth.

RE: need to dig
By InsaneGain on 6/16/2010 12:33:11 PM , Rating: 2
Life on Earth formed 4 billion years ago, immediately, in geological terms, after the Earth cooled down enough to support life. Conditions were still very harsh though with extreme volcanic activity, large meteorite bombardments, and high levels of ultraviolet radiation from the young sun but no protective ozone layer. The fact that life formed so quickly in this environment suggests that life is not a cosmic fluke, and does not need our current favorable environment to form. I would think it is almost a certainty that life exists in many other solar systems and it is very possible it exists on other planets or moons in our solar system. The degree to which another planet is similar to Earth today will then determine how advanced that life will evolve to. So if we determine that another planet somewhere has an Earth-like environment for as long as Earth, I would think that it is likely supporting life as advanced as our own.

Hypothesis != Theory
By oTAL on 6/14/2010 11:32:21 AM , Rating: 2
I know this isn't a clear cut and it's not even very important.
But, the way I studied it, you propose an hypothesis, you and your colleagues test it out experimentally, and then if it holds up it becomes a theory.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

RE: Hypothesis != Theory
By geddarkstorm on 6/14/2010 1:47:02 PM , Rating: 3
Yes, that is exactly the scientific process. However, in layman language, hypothesis and theory are often interchanged, even if this is technically incorrect.

That said, it's already known that iron oxides destroy organics, and this can be done any time in a lab. For instance, this is part of why stepping on a rusty nail leads to tetanus (the iron oxide rust kills your surrounding tissues, into which the anaerobic bacteria Clostridium tetani can enter and surrvive, and begin producing toxin).

The fact it took so long for someone to propose this is what's kinda silly -- it's blatantly obvious chemistry and accounts for all known observations.

RE: Hypothesis != Theory
By JediJeb on 6/14/2010 4:30:33 PM , Rating: 2
Similar to a test we use in the laboratory to monitor for organic compounds, where you expose a sample to UV light and Sodium persulfate(strong oxidizer, others can be used) and the organic material turns into CO2 and you monitor the amount of CO2 released to calculate the amount of organic carbon present. It works in the lab under conditions I imagine are less severe than those on the Martian surface to this explanation makes perfect sense as to why we have not found organic molecules on Mars yet.

This is why a manned mission is necessary
By Bateluer on 6/16/2010 5:19:51 AM , Rating: 2
Too bad we just neutered our manned space program.

By SSDMaster on 6/16/2010 12:58:22 PM , Rating: 2
Its up to the Chinese now.

The "no organics" obsession!
By rkirk on 6/27/2010 6:04:34 PM , Rating: 2
Since the Viking landers reportedly found no organics 40 years ago, the Mars community has been obsessed with explaining why. They have come up with dozens of plausible hypotheses. However, the problem with all these hypotheses is that the finding of ~ 1% perchlorate in the martian soil by Phoenix in 2008 invalidates the null results of both the Viking and Phoenix analyses for organics. They would NOT have seen them, even if they were present.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997

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