On the prowl at Jezero Crater, NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is loaded with scientific equipment.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust – a French novelist, literary critic, and essayist who wrote the novel In Search of Lost Time.

A new line of evidence points to the presence of a more intricate organic geochemical cycle on Mars than previously understood. It suggests the existence of several distinct reservoirs of potential organic compounds – and potential for the Red Planet to support life.

The new research makes use of data gathered by a first-of-its-kind instrument: The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals.

Perseverance places SHERLOC about two inches above its target to gather data. It operates day or night on Mars.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

That’s a Mars instrument mouthful, mercifully called SHERLOC. This device is onboard NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover now dutifully wheeling about Jezero Crater.

The why go there premise was clear.

That landing locale offers a high potential for past habitability: As an ancient lake basin, it contains an array of minerals, including carbonates, clays, and sulfates. These minerals have the potential to preserve organic materials and possible signs of ancient life.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


“The potential detection of several organic carbon species on Mars has implications for understanding the carbon cycle on Mars, and the potential of the planet to host life throughout its history,” said astrobiologist Amy Williams, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Geological Sciences in Gainesville.

“We didn’t initially expect to detect these potential organics signatures in the Jezero crater floor,” Williams said, “but their diversity and distribution in different units of the crater floor now suggest potentially different fates of carbon across these environments.”

Williams is a co-author of the just-published paper – “Diverse organic-mineral associations in Jezero Crater, Mars” — in the journal Nature.

Lead author of the new research is Sunanda Sharma, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech focused on astrobiology research and currently supporting the SHERLOC instrument on the Mars Perseverance rover.

Jezero Crater – home base for Perseverance rover.

Building blocks for life

The paper focuses on samples analyzed in two formations within Jezero crater that yielded detections by both fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy “consistent with organic material that is collocated with specific mineral assemblages.”

The confirmation of organic origin and specific identification of these molecules, the paper adds, “will require samples to be returned to Earth for laboratory analysis.”

In summary, key building blocks for life may have been present over an extended period of time on Mars, along with other as yet undetected chemical species that could be preserved within the two potentially habitable paleo-depositional settings in Jezero crater.

a: High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) image of the region studied with the rover’s traverse marked in white, the boundary between the Séítah and Máaz formations delineated by the light blue line, and each rock target labelled. b: Average number of fluorescence detections (out of 1,296 points) from survey scans for each target interrogated by SHERLOC, arranged in order of observation. c: WATSON images of natural (red box) and abraded targets (Máaz is the blue box, Séítah is the green box) analysed in this study, with SHERLOC survey scan footprints outlined in white.
Image credit: Sharma, S., Roppel, R.D., Murphy, A.E. et al.

Significant step forward

The research paper concludes: “Our findings suggest there may be a diversity of aromatic molecules prevalent on the Martian surface, and these materials persist despite exposure to surface conditions. These potential organic molecules are largely found within minerals linked to aqueous processes, indicating that these processes may have had a key role in organic synthesis, transport or preservation.”

Those findings mark a significant step forward in exploring and understanding the intricacies of Mars, laying the groundwork for more research into the possibility of life beyond Earth.

“We are just now scratching the surface of the organic carbon story on Mars,” Williams said in a university statement, “and it is an exciting time for planetary science!”

To read the entire paper — “Diverse organic-mineral associations in Jezero Crater, Mars” – go to: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-06143-z

One Response to “Mars Life Reveal? Evidence of Diverse Organic Material on the Red Planet”

  • Many planetary scientists today probably don’t realize it yet, but the 1976 Viking LR biology results “Cold Case” has now been solved beyond a reasonable doubt and it is time for the scientific community to come together and speak out about it. The Principal Investigators of Viking Lander Labeled Release experiment. Gilbert V. Levin and Patricia Ann Straat have published peer reviewed evidence over the years that their microbial metabolism instrument aboard Viking discovered life Mars at 7:30 PM EST on July 30, 1976 with Viking Lander 1 in Chryse Planitia.


    How is this result possible after so many years? Because organic molecules have been routinely found in the soils, rocks and atmosphere of Mars by NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers.

    Now even evidence from the 1976 Viking Lander Pyrolytic Release (PR) experiment needs to be reassessed. Why? It can now explain why organic molecules were found forming inside the PR test chamber although the Viking GCMS couldn’t find organics to the parts per billion level. This should have called into question the reliability and sensitivity of the Viking GCMS on Mars. Instead, the majority of the science team on Viking had “such faith” in the Viking GCMS that they disregarded the most important discovery in the history of science – the discovery of life on Mars. Although Horowitz at the time spoke out against Levin and Straat’s LR results for their detecting microbial metabolism in Martin soil, he did so erroneously thinking the Viking organic analysis (GCMS) instrument was correct and couldn’t find organic molecules of any kind to the parts per billion level. He opened in his famous 1977 Scientific American article on page 52, stating, THE SEARCH FOR LIFE ON MARS, “The Viking landers have not detected life, but they have nonetheless found much of interest.

    However in the same article Horowitz later seems confused by his own PR results writes on page 62:

    “Surprisingly. seven of the nine pyrolytic-
    release tests executed on Mars
    gave positive results. The two negative
    results were obtained at the Utopia site.
    but a third sample tested at Utopia was
    positive. This third sample was actually
    incubated in the dark. implying that
    light may not be required for the reaction.
    The amount of carbon fixed in
    the soil by the experiment was small:
    enough to furnish organic matter for between
    100 and 1.000 bacterial cells. The
    quantity is so small. in fact. that it could
    not have been detected by the organic analysis
    experiment. The quantity is
    nonetheless significant; it was surprising
    that in such a strongly oxidizing environment
    even a small amount of organic
    material could be fixed in the soil.
    Even more significant. the pyrolytic release
    instrument had been rigorously
    designed to eliminate non-biological
    sources of organic compounds. During
    the development of the experiment it
    had been found that in the presence of
    short-wavelength ultraviolet radiation.
    carbon monoxide spontaneously combined
    with water vapor to form organic
    molecules on glass. quartz and soil
    surfaces in the experimental chamber.
    In order to avoid those reactions and
    the confusion they would have caused.
    the short-wavelength ultraviolet was filtered
    out of the radiation allowed to enter
    the incubation chamber. To receive
    positive results from the soil on Mars in
    spite of that precaution was startling”.

    What would Horowitz say today if here were alive with the finding of numerous organics found by Curiosity and Perseverance in the soil, rocks and atmosphere of Mars? Horowitz like many on the Viking team at the time had complete “faith” in the Viking GCMS instrument results which failed to detect organic molecules to the parts per billion level. Horowitz seemed to justify the Viking GCMS results with his PR experiment saying, “it was possible that the sensitivity of the GCMS was below the threshold of the tiny amount of organic that was seen accumulating in the PR experiment”. Along with Horowitz, this observation was completely ignored by those on the Viking science team that refused to give the Viking LR data a fair scientific hearing. Here was proof from the PR experiment that small amounts of organic molecules were actively forming inside. Why would the majority of those on Viking ignore this important data? Was it because of something as simple as the “faith” they had in Gerry Soffen, Vikings lead biology scientist, who announced publically, “Well folks, that’s the ballgame, no organics on Mars, no life”?

    Giving Horowitz the last word from his 1977 Scientific American article, “Until the mystery of the results from the pyrolytic-release experiment is solved. a biological explanation will continue to be a remote possibility”.

    Hopefully all those interested in scientific truth about the Viking Labeled Release experiment “Cold Case” will demand from NASA that this historic data be re-investigated in light of the new organics findings.

    Barry E. DiGregorio

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