The team responsible for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on NASA’s Curiosity rover has made the first definitive detection of organic molecules at Mars. Organic molecules are the building blocks of all known forms of terrestrial life, and consist of a wide variety of molecules made primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. However, organic molecules can also be made by chemical reactions that don’t involve life, and there is not enough evidence to tell if the matter found by the team came from ancient Martian life or from a non-biological process. Examples of non-biological sources include chemical reactions in water at ancient Martian hot springs or delivery of organic material to Mars by interplanetary dust or fragments of asteroids and comets.
The surface of Mars is currently inhospitable to life as we know it, but there is evidence that the Red Planet once had a climate that could have supported life billions of years ago. For example, features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that only form in the presence of liquid water have been discovered on the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover with its suite of instruments including SAM was sent to Mars in 2011 to discover more about the ancient habitable Martian environment by examining clues in the chemistry of rocks and the atmosphere.