NASA says organic salts are likely present on Mars

There are multiple rovers on the surface of and spacecraft orbiting Mars right now with a specific mission of trying to determine if the Red Planet could have life today or might have had life in its distant past. Recently, a NASA team discovered that organic salts are likely present on Mars. Organic salts are the chemical remnants of organic compounds, such as those previously detected by the Curiosity rover.

Organic compounds and salts on Mars could've formed by geological processes or could be the remains of ancient microbial life. The organic salts add more weight to the idea that Mars once had organic matter. NASA scientists also note that directly detecting organic salts would also support the current habitability of Mars. On Earth, some organisms can use organic salts such as oxalates and acetates for energy.

NASA organic geochemist James M. T. Lewis said that if we were able to determine there are organic salts concentrated anywhere on Mars, those regions will need to be investigated further. Ideally, scientists want to drill deeper below the surface where any organic matter could be better preserved. Drilling beneath the rocky surface of the Red Planet has proven difficult in the past.

The Curiosity rover has the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM portable chemistry lab tucked away inside and can indirectly point to the presence of organic salts. However, Lewis is clear that directly identifying organic salts on Mars is hard to do with instruments like SAM. SAM heats Martian soil and rocks to release gases to reveal the composition of the samples. However, heating organic salts produces only simple gases that other ingredients in Martian soil could release.

Another instrument aboard Curiosity uses a different technique to examine Martian soil called CheMin. It could detect organic salts if they are present in sufficient amounts, but so far, it has not. The discovery of organic molecules or organic salt remnants is an essential part of NASA's search for extraterrestrial life, and the task is challenging.