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NASA may have discovered organs on Mars in 1976 and then destroyed them



  NASA may have discovered organism on Mars in 1976 and then destroyed it

This view of Viking 2 shows Utopia Planitia on Mars in 1976. Some researchers believe that the Viking Landers' main instrument has burned organic molecules in collected soil could samples.

Source: NASA / JPL-Caltech

More than 40 years ago, a NASA mission may have accidentally destroyed the first discovery of organic molecules on Mars, according to a New Scientist report.

Recently NASA caused a stir when it announced that its Rover Curiosity on Mars has discovered organic molecules that make up life as we know it. This was the first confirmation of organic molecules on Mars in 201

4. But because small, carbon-rich meteorites infest the red planet so frequently, scientists have believed for decades that organic matter exists on Mars. But in 1976, the researchers were stunned when NASA first sent two Viking landers to Mars to search for organic substances and found absolutely none.

Scientists did not know what to do with the Viking results – how could there be no organic matter on Mars? "It was just totally unexpected and out of tune with what we knew," said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center opposite New Scientist. [Viking 1: The Historic First Mars Landing in Pictures]

  A technician checks the soil sampler on the Viking Lander in 1971 before the probe moves to Mars. Some scientists think that the organic molecules in the soil samples collected by the lander were accidentally burned.

A technician inspects the soil sampler on the Viking Lander in 1971 before the probe travels to Mars. Some scientists think that the organic molecules in the soil samples collected by the lander were accidentally burned.

Credit: NASA.

One possible explanation emerged when NASA's lander Phoenix 2008 found perchlorate on Mars. This is a salt that is used to make fireworks on earth. it becomes highly explosive at high temperatures. And while the surface of Mars is not too warm, the main instrument aboard the Viking lander, the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), had to heat the Martian soil samples to organic molecules. And since perchlorate is in the soil, the instrument would have burned any organic matter in the samples during this process.

The discovery of perchlorate revived the scientists' belief that the Viking countries could have found organic matter on Mars. "You get new insights, and you realize that everything you thought was wrong," McKay said.

However, perchlorate has not provided any concrete evidence that the Viking lander found and accidentally destroyed organic molecules, so the investigation continued.

The variety of organic molecules that Curiosity recently discovered on the Red Planet included chlorobenzene. This molecule is created when carbon molecules burn with perchlorate, so scientists suspect that it may have been produced by burning the soil samples, New Scientist said.

The researchers were inspired by this indirect evidence to dig deeper and find more evidence that the Viking countries could have found and then destroyed organic matter. In a new study published in June in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, by Melissa Guzman of the LATMOS research center in France, McKay and a handful of collaborators have reviewed the Viking Lander data to see if anything has been missed.

This team found that the Viking Landers had also found chlorobenzene, which, according to the researchers, could have been caused by the burning of organic matter in the soil samples.

However, this is no proof that the Viking Landers found organic molecules and then accidentally burned them. Even the scientists who completed this study are divided.

Guzman said she still was not fully convinced that the chlorobenzene they discovered had formed when organic matter was burned on the Martian soil. She said the molecule could come from Earth with NASA equipment.

But despite this skepticism, others are convinced; "This newspaper really seals the deal," said Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who was not involved in the study, New Scientist.

E-mail: Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her @chelsea_gohd . Follow us @SpaceTOTCOM Facebook and Google+ . Original article on Space.com


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