Traces of nitrates have been spotted on the surface of the red planet, Mars. This discovery made by NASA’s Curiosity Rover indicates that the possibility of life having ever existed on Mars is not that far-fetched. The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Man’s ambitious nature knows no bounds. The very planet on which humanity treads foot everyday has not been fully explored but man still wants to go beyond its atmosphere and find life elsewhere. Much of the focus of this goal lies on Mars. It is speculated that the latter might have held life forms in its midst in the past. A new discovery made by NASA’s Curiosity Rover seems to shift the balance in favour of this theory: it has found the first traces of nitrates on the surface of Mars, suggesting that life might have existed on the Red Planet.
Nitrates, the building blocks of life
Nitrates are essential for the synthesis of proteins, and thus of DNA and RNA. These nitrogen compounds are therefore crucial for life to exist; at least, life forms that we are acquainted with. While scientists who wish to find life on other planets generally look for carbon which can only be produced by living organisms, the lead author of the study, NASA geochemist Jennifer Stern, explained the pertinence of the study with respect to nitrates in a statement as follows:
“People want to follow the carbon, but in many ways nitrogen is just as important a nutrient for life. Life runs on nitrogen as much as it runs on carbon.”
The nitrate was found by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument of the Curiosity Rover. It was discovered in the form of nitric oxide which was thought to have been given off by the breakdown of nitrates when the rover heated rocks and dust sediments taken from different points on the surface of Mars, in the Gale Crater.
However, no evidence exists as to the origin of this nitrate: was it produced by living organisms? Or not?
The team of researchers are of the opinion that the theory stating that the nitrate came from meteorites and lightning strikes is more likely.
However, the Gale Crater was found to have contained liquid water and organic matter in the distance past, billions of years ago. Therefore, the nitrate might have been part of an environment where life once flourished on the red planet.
“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Stern in a press release.
Furthermore, the quantity of nitric oxide found is actually two times greater than what would have been expected from SAM to release. This amount of nitrate is said to be comparable to that found on dry places on Earth, as in deserts.
“Scientists have long thought that nitrates would be produced on Mars from the energy released in meteorite impacts, and the amounts we found agree well with estimates from this process,” said Stern in a statement.