NASA experiment searches for amino acids in investigation into possible life on Mars

A discovery of amino acids on the planet could indicate signs of past Martian life that is now extinct.

 Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

A NASA laboratory experiment from last month concluded that further investigation of possible extinct life on Mars would require a search of traces of amino acids with deep-drilling rovers.

Specific amino acids on the planet would indicate the possible existence of ancient Martian life "because they are widely used by terrestrial life as a component to build proteins," NASA states. 

However, any amino acids on Mars could be "degraded by exposure to cosmic rays that can penetrate to a depth of a few meters," stated the peer-reviewed study, which was published online in the journal Astrobiology

The study also concluded that rovers such as the Mars Curiosity rover would have to dig 2 feet (about 6.6 meters) under Mars's surface to find any signs because ionizing radiation from space would degrade amino acids at a fast pace.

Cosmic rays are particles with high-energy generated by solar flares and exploding stars.

The experiment

Researchers are now trying to simulate soil from Mars, and mix it together with amino acids. Samples of amino acids in silica were blasted with gamma radiation to copy the amount of "cosmic-ray doses up to that received from about 80 million years of exposure in the Martian surface rocks."

 NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and color corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS) NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and color corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Regarding the drilling capabilities of the rovers, "current Mars rover missions drill down to about two inches (around five centimeters)," said Alexander Pavlov, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Palov also stated that their work "is the first comprehensive study where the destruction (radiolysis) of a broad range of amino acids was studied under a variety of Mars-relevant factors."

Key components of life

Also last month, NASA’s Curiosity rover measured the total organic carbon in rocks on the planet for the first time. This is significant because carbon is a "key component in the molecules of life," NASA states. 

"Our is the first comprehensive study where the destruction (radiolysis) of a broad range of amino acids was studied under a variety of Mars-relevant factors."

Alexander Pavlov

The space agency also states that there is evidence that Mars's climate was once "Earth-like, with a thicker atmosphere and liquid water that flowed into rivers and seas" - indicating that there was at once point life. NASA stresses while amino acids have yet to be discovered on Mars, they have been discovered on meteorites - including one from Mars.