Organic chemicals on Mars

That Viking lander that did experiments 30 years ago on Martian soil found organic chemicals after all:

More than 30 years after NASA’s Viking landers found no evidence for organic materials on Mars, scientists say a new experiment on Mars-like soil shows Viking did, in fact, hit pay dirt.

The new study was prompted by the August 2008 discovery of powerful oxygen-busting compounds known as perchlorates at the landing site of another Mars probe called Phoenix.

Scientists repeated a key Viking experiment using perchlorate-enhanced soil from Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is considered one of the driest and most Mars-like places on Earth, and found telltale fingerprints of combusted organics — the same chemicals Viking scientists dismissed as contaminants from Earth.

“Contrary to 30 years of perceived wisdom, Viking did detect organic materials on Mars,” planetary scientist Christopher McKay, with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, told Discovery News. “It’s like a 30-year-old cold case suddenly solved with new facts.”

“If the Viking team had said ‘Well, maybe there’s perchlorate in the soil,’ everybody would have said they’re crazy — why would there be perchlorates in the soil? It was only by having it pushed on us by Phoenix where we had no alternative but to conclude that there was perchlorate in the soil … Once you realize it’s there, then everything makes sense,” McKay added.

The Viking team’s verdict that Mars lacked organics was the lynchpin argument against another Viking experiment that looked for signs of microbial life. In the experiment, a bit of nutrient-laced water was added to a sample of Martian soil.

The air above the soil was then monitored for signs that the nutrients had been metabolized. The instrument detected tracer gases the first time the experiment was done, but subsequent runs did not. The results were considered inconclusive and remain contested.

New evidence for organics on Mars does not mean Viking found life, cautions McKay.

“Finding organics is not evidence of life or evidence of past life. It’s just evidence for organics,” he said.

But if NASA had realized there were organics on Mars, there might not have been a 20-year hiatus in sending landers for follow-up studies, said Rafael Navarro-González, with the Institute of Nuclear Science at the National Autonomous University in Mexico.

“We might have had continuing missions,” Navarro-González told Discovery News.

NASA plans to launch a follow-up mission to look for organics on Mars in November.

via Viking Found Organics on Mars, Experiment Confirms : Discovery News.

But do we know of “organics” apart from organisms?  Do organic chemicals exist in nature apart from life?  Maybe so.  Perhaps some of you can enlighten us.  But this seems pretty important in the quest to find extraterrestrial life.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    Organic = “contains carbon or carbon-derivatives.” Organic compounds thought to be only from “living” things can be synthesized inorganically, including perchlorates. The distinction is sometimes semantic. So, if I’m a multi-billion-$ agency looking for a purpose, ahem, it will only cost another few billion (on a per annum basis) to find out for sure that we won’t really be able to tell. However, perchlorates could be useful for space exploration (a good oxygen source and for solid fuel rockets).

  • SKPeterson

    Organic = “contains carbon or carbon-derivatives.” Organic compounds thought to be only from “living” things can be synthesized inorganically, including perchlorates. The distinction is sometimes semantic. So, if I’m a multi-billion-$ agency looking for a purpose, ahem, it will only cost another few billion (on a per annum basis) to find out for sure that we won’t really be able to tell. However, perchlorates could be useful for space exploration (a good oxygen source and for solid fuel rockets).

  • WebMonk

    What SK said.

    However, organic compounds are a product of life, so while organic compounds aren’t proof of life, they do a wink-nudge to tell people where to look to find life. So, if you want to find life (at least as we know it) you will find organic compounds where that life is (or was).

    I’m of a mixed mind about NASA. I think space exploration and utilization is immensely valuable. NASA does a lot of that, therefore I like NASA. NASA tends to be blind, bureaucratic, wasteful, slow, etc. I get really frustrated with NASA.

    And that doesn’t even begin to touch on my feelings on the government running what is essentially a commercial space business through NASA.

  • WebMonk

    What SK said.

    However, organic compounds are a product of life, so while organic compounds aren’t proof of life, they do a wink-nudge to tell people where to look to find life. So, if you want to find life (at least as we know it) you will find organic compounds where that life is (or was).

    I’m of a mixed mind about NASA. I think space exploration and utilization is immensely valuable. NASA does a lot of that, therefore I like NASA. NASA tends to be blind, bureaucratic, wasteful, slow, etc. I get really frustrated with NASA.

    And that doesn’t even begin to touch on my feelings on the government running what is essentially a commercial space business through NASA.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    To add to what has already been written…

    “Do organic chemicals exist in nature apart from life?” The answer as things currently stand: yes. However, I suppose one could posit that the answer is actually: no, but we have simply found vastly more organic chemicals than we have their life-based sources.

    I mean, we have observed vast quantities of methane (CH4, organic!) on Venus, but we haven’t likewise observed vast quantities of life on Venus.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    To add to what has already been written…

    “Do organic chemicals exist in nature apart from life?” The answer as things currently stand: yes. However, I suppose one could posit that the answer is actually: no, but we have simply found vastly more organic chemicals than we have their life-based sources.

    I mean, we have observed vast quantities of methane (CH4, organic!) on Venus, but we haven’t likewise observed vast quantities of life on Venus.

  • Joe

    Okay – Let me first state that I am a skeptic as to life on other planets and I admit that this sometimes clouds my view of these findings. That being said, what am I missing?

    1. 30 years ago we said, “these organics found by the Viking mission are actually contaminants from Earth.”

    2. today we replicated the experiment – with one major deviation. We did it here on Earth and not on Mars.

    3. then we declared that because we found the organics on Earth, we now know that Viking found them on Mars and they were not a contaminant from Earth.

  • Joe

    Okay – Let me first state that I am a skeptic as to life on other planets and I admit that this sometimes clouds my view of these findings. That being said, what am I missing?

    1. 30 years ago we said, “these organics found by the Viking mission are actually contaminants from Earth.”

    2. today we replicated the experiment – with one major deviation. We did it here on Earth and not on Mars.

    3. then we declared that because we found the organics on Earth, we now know that Viking found them on Mars and they were not a contaminant from Earth.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Dave Barry once noted that a certain cloud in the heavens was composed, as far as astronomers could tell, almost entirely of alcohol–and hence his fraternity was hoping to buy a used Saturn V rocket to get there.

    So it would appear that one can have, as tODD notes, copious amounts of carbon based compounds without life.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Dave Barry once noted that a certain cloud in the heavens was composed, as far as astronomers could tell, almost entirely of alcohol–and hence his fraternity was hoping to buy a used Saturn V rocket to get there.

    So it would appear that one can have, as tODD notes, copious amounts of carbon based compounds without life.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@4), I am not an expert in these matters, but here’s how I understand the article…

    1) 30 years ago, we sent the Viking mission up there to look for organic chemicals (or what I will label O). We did this by mixing “nutrient-laced water” (which I will label N + H2O) with Martian soil. We don’t find them, as such, but we do find an unusual collection of chemicals (which I will label C) which we dismiss, at that time, as “contaminants” from Earth.

    2) In 2008, we send the Phoenix mission to Mars, and it finds a collection of chemicals there known as perchlorates (which I will label P) which are not themselves organic, but which we had not previously known were found on Mars.

    3) Recently, someone went to the most Mars-like place on Earth that they could find — a place where the soil also has perchlorates in it — and repeated the experiment that the Viking lander had performed. They observed the same unusual collection of chemicals that Viking long ago observed, such that:

    O + P + N + H2O → C.

    4) Armed with this knowledge, the inference was made that organic chemicals must be on Mars. Likely not a slam dunk, but nor is it an unwarranted inference.

    But yeah, I think SK’s inference (@1) about NASA’s motivations seems even more likely.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@4), I am not an expert in these matters, but here’s how I understand the article…

    1) 30 years ago, we sent the Viking mission up there to look for organic chemicals (or what I will label O). We did this by mixing “nutrient-laced water” (which I will label N + H2O) with Martian soil. We don’t find them, as such, but we do find an unusual collection of chemicals (which I will label C) which we dismiss, at that time, as “contaminants” from Earth.

    2) In 2008, we send the Phoenix mission to Mars, and it finds a collection of chemicals there known as perchlorates (which I will label P) which are not themselves organic, but which we had not previously known were found on Mars.

    3) Recently, someone went to the most Mars-like place on Earth that they could find — a place where the soil also has perchlorates in it — and repeated the experiment that the Viking lander had performed. They observed the same unusual collection of chemicals that Viking long ago observed, such that:

    O + P + N + H2O → C.

    4) Armed with this knowledge, the inference was made that organic chemicals must be on Mars. Likely not a slam dunk, but nor is it an unwarranted inference.

    But yeah, I think SK’s inference (@1) about NASA’s motivations seems even more likely.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Hah. Just realized I made some really unfortunate choices in those abbreviations above, as they’re all valid element symbols. So, for the record, it is not true that oxygen plus phosphorus plus nitrogen plus water yields carbon. Not true at all.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Hah. Just realized I made some really unfortunate choices in those abbreviations above, as they’re all valid element symbols. So, for the record, it is not true that oxygen plus phosphorus plus nitrogen plus water yields carbon. Not true at all.

  • SKPeterson

    @tODD – I bet God could get it to work ;).

  • SKPeterson

    @tODD – I bet God could get it to work ;).

  • WebMonk

    tODD, I just pulled out some old chemistry tables to see if I could make your equation work somehow. Sorry, too many electrons in those valence positions. :-P

    However, if we started tossing in a bunch more H2O and didn’t care much about what sort of products we get, it could work!

    (of course, you can do that with almost anything – H2O is virtually universally reactive save for the noble gases, one of the reasons which H2O is considered to be such a necessary building block for life)

  • WebMonk

    tODD, I just pulled out some old chemistry tables to see if I could make your equation work somehow. Sorry, too many electrons in those valence positions. :-P

    However, if we started tossing in a bunch more H2O and didn’t care much about what sort of products we get, it could work!

    (of course, you can do that with almost anything – H2O is virtually universally reactive save for the noble gases, one of the reasons which H2O is considered to be such a necessary building block for life)

  • Joe

    tODD – thanks. I can see the inference, but most of the reporting I have seen is moving beyond inference to declaration. I have a problem with that. I think that lawyers are trained to be more skeptical than even scientists.

  • Joe

    tODD – thanks. I can see the inference, but most of the reporting I have seen is moving beyond inference to declaration. I have a problem with that. I think that lawyers are trained to be more skeptical than even scientists.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@10) said, “I think that lawyers are trained to be more skeptical than even scientists.” Perhaps, but I do note that you are pitting your lawyerly skepticism not against scientists, but against journalists talking about scientists. And mass media is terrible at reporting on science. Even in high school (nearly 20 years ago), my physics teacher had a grading rubric for our reports that dinged us points for using newspapers or news magazines as our sources.

    I would also suggest that both scientists and lawyers have an interest in getting you to believe the story they are pitching (especially when they are working for a politically funded entity), so you should never take their word for it, but rather listen to what their peers are saying. That is where the true skepticism kicks in.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@10) said, “I think that lawyers are trained to be more skeptical than even scientists.” Perhaps, but I do note that you are pitting your lawyerly skepticism not against scientists, but against journalists talking about scientists. And mass media is terrible at reporting on science. Even in high school (nearly 20 years ago), my physics teacher had a grading rubric for our reports that dinged us points for using newspapers or news magazines as our sources.

    I would also suggest that both scientists and lawyers have an interest in getting you to believe the story they are pitching (especially when they are working for a politically funded entity), so you should never take their word for it, but rather listen to what their peers are saying. That is where the true skepticism kicks in.

  • Joe

    “I do note that you are pitting your lawyerly skepticism not against scientists, but against journalists talking about scientists. ”

    Good point.

  • Joe

    “I do note that you are pitting your lawyerly skepticism not against scientists, but against journalists talking about scientists. ”

    Good point.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X