50 years ago, experiments hinted at the possibility of life on Mars

Excerpt from the March 27, 1971 issue of Science News

Perseverance parachuting down to Mars

On February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars to collect rocks that might contain signs of ancient microbial life. The rover can be seen parachuting to the planet’s surface in this image taken by a camera aboard the descent stage.


cover of March 27, 1971 issue of Science News

Organics on MarsScience News, March 27, 1971

[Researchers] have exposed a mixture of gases simulating conditions believed to exist on the surface of Mars to ultraviolet radiation. The reaction produced organic compounds. They conclude that the ultraviolet radiation bombarding the surface of Mars could be producing organic matter on that planet.… The fact that such organic compounds may be produced on the Martian surface increases the possibility of life on Mars.


In 1976, a few years after those experiments, NASA took its search for organic molecules to the Red Planet’s surface. That year, the Viking landers became the first U.S. mission to land on Mars. Though the landers failed to turn up evidence in the soil, NASA has continued the hunt. In 2018, the Curiosity rover found hints of life: organic molecules in rocks and seasonal shifts in atmospheric methane. A new phase of the hunt began in February when the Perseverance rover landed on Mars (SN Online: 2/17/21). It will find and store rocks that might preserve signs of past life for eventual return to Earth.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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