Greenbelt, MD – Scientists using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover measured the total organic carbon – a key component in the molecules of life – in Martian rocks for the first time.
“Total organic carbon is one of several measurements [or indices] that help us understand how much material is available as feedstock for prebiotic chemistry and potentially biology,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
“We found at least 200 to 273 parts per million of organic carbon. This is comparable to or even more than the amount found in rocks in very low-life places on Earth, such as parts of the Atacama Desert in South America, and more than has been detected in Mars meteorites,” Stern stated.
Organic carbon has been found on Mars before, but prior measurements only produced information on particular compounds, or represented measurements capturing just a portion of the carbon in the rocks. The new measurement gives the total amount of organic carbon in these rocks.
Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable for life now, there is evidence that billions of years ago the climate was more Earth-like, with a thicker atmosphere and liquid water that flowed into rivers and seas. Since liquid water is necessary for life as we understand it, scientists think Martian life, if it ever evolved, could have been sustained by key ingredients such as organic carbon, if present in a sufficient amount.
Curiosity is advancing the field of astrobiology by investigating Mars’ habitability, studying its climate and geology. The rover drilled samples from 3.5 billion-year-old mudstone rocks in the “Yellowknife Bay” formation of Gale Crater, the site of an ancient lake on Mars. Mudstone at Gale Crater was formed as very fine sediment (from physical and chemical weathering of volcanic rocks) in water settled on the bottom of a lake and was buried.
Organic carbon was part of this material and got incorporated into the mudstone. Besides liquid water and organic carbon, Gale Crater had other conditions conducive to life, such as chemical energy sources, low acidity, and other elements essential for biology, such as oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur.
“Basically, this location would have offered a habitable environment for life, if it ever was present,” said Stern, lead author of a paper about this research published June 27th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.