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Finding ET? The Mars Rover Finds Boron On The Planet’s Surface

Ask a Bangladeshi knee-deep in muddy waters from the Ganges, and he’ll tell you the world is a different place than it was 40 years ago. Same goes for the farmer in our country, whose crops are consistently destroyed by alternating shifts of severe rainfall and drought. The world is finally beginning to acknowledge the macabre truth of Earth’s unseemly demise.

And since the dawn of the space age, NASA and other agencies have spent billions of dollars to reconnoiter Mars—assailing it with spacecraft flybys, photo-snapping orbiters and landers nose-diving onto its surface.

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The odds are good, many scientists say, for the Red Planet being an extraterrestrial address for alien life—good enough to sustain decades’ worth of landing very expensive robots to ping it with radar, zap it with lasers, trundle across its terrain and scoop up its dirt. Yet no convincing signs of life have emerged.

Every time NASA’s rover on Mars scratches the surface, it seems that some large portion of humanity veritably holds its breath in anticipation of the space agency finally declaring it has found signs of life – dead or alive.

If aliens are (in case) watching us, they must think we’re really weird. We are literally obsessed with things that no living soul on earth has ever witnessed firsthand; surveys consistently show that about a third of all Americans think alien spaceships are real. I mean, what is it about unidentified flying objects and extraterrestrial visitors that holds such allure?

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Now, when the scientists announced that they have found boron, a key ingredient for life, on the dusty surface of the Red Planet, many theories have kicked up again.
But what does it really mean? Let’s find out.

A paper published in the Geophysical Research Letters on Tuesday links the presence of boron to the possible presence of ribonucleic acid on the unforgiving dust world at one time or another. This acid, better known as RNA, is an essential to building block of life.

Borates – a class of molecules containing boron – were discovered by the rover in veins of calcium sulfate minerals left over from the groundwater in the Gale Crater.
Scientists analyzed the data from ChemCam, an instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars that fires lasers to excite the electrons in the chemical elements in Martian soil and rock. This causes light to be emitted at particular frequencies depending on the types of elements present in the sample.

Patrick Gasda, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said: “Because borates may play an important role in making RNA – one of the building blocks of life – finding boron on Mars further opens the possibility that life could have once arisen on the planet. Borates are one possible bridge from simple organic molecules to RNA. Without RNA, you have no life. The presence of boron tells us that, if organics were present on Mars, these chemical reactions could have occurred.”

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“Essentially, this tells us that the conditions from which life could have potentially grown may have existed on ancient Mars, independent from Earth,” said Gasda.

However, NASA first found evidence of borates on the Martian surface back in 2013, though that wasn’t from a direct sample. It came from meteor MIL 090030, which originated from Mars and landed in Antarctica. That sample was also rich in borates, much like the one from Gale Crater.

There’s a widespread theory that says RNA may have been the first kind of genetic code for early life on Earth. Since it’s a single- rather than a double-stranded molecule, it’s less stable than DNA, but it’s able to do something that DNA is not. It can self-replicate. And it can fold up into a kind of pseudo-enzyme, which can help run chemical reactions.

These extra functions make it an attractive candidate for the first genetic molecule. Plenty of viruses today use RNA, not DNA, to survive, and they do alright for themselves. It’s not enough to make a complex biological organism, but it COULD have been sufficient for early life.

The discovery of boron joins a long list of mounting evidence that the conditions on Mars might have been, once upon a time, promising for microbial life. A series of minerals in Martian clay point to liquid water in the form of a lake in the Gale Crater.

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But there has been no concrete confirmation that life does or did exist on Mars. Alas, the Mars 2020 rover will continue the search for signs of past life on the planet.

In search of the perfect burger. Serial eater. In her spare time, practises her "Vader Voice". Passionate about dance. Real Weird.