Science: IMPORTANT: Mars meteorite that crashed to Earth contains ‘huge diversity’ of organic compounds

A Martian meteorite that crashed to Earth 12 years ago contains a "huge diversity" of organic compounds, including one that has never been seen on Mars before, a new study has found. The findings could help scientists understand more about the Red Planet’s habitability and whether it potentially once harbored life, researchers said.

The Tissint meteorite broke apart in the sky above the city of Tissint in Morocco on July 18, 2011, showering fragments of the space rock across the surrounding desert. The meteorite, which formed on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago, was likely ejected from our cosmic next-door neighbor by a cataclysmic event before being caught in Earth’s gravitational field. It is one of only five Martian meteorites witnessed by people as it crashed into our planet.

In a new study, published Jan. 11 in the journal Science Advances, researchers analyzed fragments of the meteorite and found examples of at least five different types of organics compounds.

The new study represents "the most comprehensive catalog ever made of the diversity of organic compounds found in a Martian meteorite or in a sample collected and analyzed by a rover," researchers wrote in a statement.

Organic compounds are molecules that contain carbon atoms bonded to atoms from one or more other elements — usually hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur, as well as others. These compounds are highly abundant in all lifeforms on Earth, which means their presence in space rocks could potentially indicate the existence of life elsewhere in the solar system. However, some organic compounds can also be formed by non-biological processes, so scientists cannot know for certain whether such compounds are a sign of life on other planets.

The Tissint meteorite contained organic magnesium compounds, which are "extremely abundant" throughout the meteorite and have never been detected in Martian samples before, researchers wrote in the study. The team believes that these compounds were formed in the high-pressure and high-temperature conditions of Mars’ ancient mantle (the layer beneath Mars’ crust), meaning they are non-biological and could reveal clues about how the Red Planet’s deep interior was shaped.

The researchers also uncovered several other compounds within the meteorite, including aliphatic branched carboxylic acids — compounds that have similar structures to amino acids that make up proteins; aldehydes — compounds where a carbon is double bonded, or shares multiple electrons, with an oxygen atom; olefins, or hydrocarbons with one or more carbon atoms double bonded to each other; and polyaromatics — complex hydrocarbons that include multiple ring structures.

The new study of the Tissint organics is the most detailed analysis of any Martian sample to date.

The new study of the Tissint organics is the most detailed analysis of any Martian sample to date. (Image credit: Shutterstock)
This is not the first time organic compounds have been discovered within a Martian meteorite. The Allan Hills 84001 meteorite, or ALH 84001, which crash-landed in Antarctica in 1984, contained several organic compounds; their discovery sparked years of debate about whether these compounds could have been formed by ancient Martian life forms. But in July, 2022, researchers discovered that the compounds within ALH 84001 were likely created by basic geological reactions billions of years ago.

Although none of these organic compounds identified in the new study are obvious biomarkers for alien life, the researchers note that they can still help teach scientists new things about our cosmic neighbor, potentially including whether the ancient geological conditions on the planet may have favored life.

"Understanding the processes and sequence of events that shaped this rich organic bounty will reveal new details about Mars’ habitability and potentially about the reactions that could lead to the formation of life," study co-author Andrew Steele, an astrobiologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C. and a mission scientist with NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity rovers, said in the statement.

But future missions to Mars are needed to expand our understanding of the Red Planet before we can say more confidently whether or not life once flourished on Mars, the researchers said.

"The question of whether it [life] ever existed on Mars is a very hot research topic that requires deeper knowledge of our neighboring planet’s water, organic molecules and reactive surfaces," study lead author Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, a biogeochemist at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, said in the statement.


Video: NASA’s Lucy spacecraft successfully completes 1st flyby of asteroid ‘Dinky’

On Nov. 1, NASA confirmed its Lucy spacecraft successfully completed a flyby of asteroid Dinkinesh, a relatively small space rock located in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. This marks a milestone in Lucy’s journey, as Dinkinesh, or ‘Dinky,’ is the first of 10 asteroids the probe will visit over the next 12 years.

"Based on the information received, the team has determined that the spacecraft is in good health," NASA officials wrote in a blog post after the flyby occurred. "The team has commanded the spacecraft to start downlinking the data collected during the encounter."

In a nutshell, the Lucy mission is part of NASA’s ambitious endeavor to unveil secrets of our solar system’s past. Though Lucy will also be passing by a few relatively nearby asteroids like Dinky, the probe’s main goal is to fly by a few more distant Trojan asteroids orbiting the sun alongside Jupiter like bundles of pebbles bound to the gravitational tides of a giant boulder. Scientists are interested in learning more about those Trojans because they’re believed to be ancient relics of the solar system, like extra Lego bricks from the box that built the planets.

Lucy’s flyby of Dinkinesh can be thought of as a test-run in this regard, as many of the spacecraft’s instruments have now been oiled while collecting data about this first asteroid encounter — including a color imager, high-resolution camera and infrared spectrometer.

According to the blog post, data from these tools will take about a week to be downlinked to Earth, and the team is "looking forward to seeing how the spacecraft performed during this first in-flight test of a high-speed asteroid encounter."

Next, Lucy will head back to Earth for a gravity assist that’ll help it zoom toward its second asteroid target: 52246 Donaldjohanson — named after co-discoverer of the Lucy fossil (representative of one the earliest human ancestors, for which the spacecraft is named), American paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson. And if you were wondering, "Dinkinesh" is just another title for the Lucy fossil.

It also means "you are marvelous," as you are, Lucy.