NASA’s Curiosity Measures Organic Carbon in Mars Rocks

June 29, 2022, 05:12 pm
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NASA's Curiosity Measures Organic Carbon in Mars Rocks
Mudstone samples from Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater were used to study (Photo Credits: NASA)

Scientists have used data from NASA’s Curiosity rover to measure organic carbon in Martian rocks for the first time.

Organic carbon or carbon bound to a hydrogen atom is a major component of the molecules of life.

It is created and used by all forms of life. Although its presence itself is not proof, it gives scientists more information about the question of life on Mars.

Why does this story matter?

  • Humans have been looking at Mars as a possible candidate for the presence of life since the 1960s.
  • The development of astrobiology over the years has helped us look at more factors than ever before to determine whether our red neighbor ever had life.
  • Using data from Curiosity to measure organic carbon on the planet is another big step for astrobiology.

Why are scientists taking inventory of organic carbon on Mars?

Evidence suggests that Mars had an Earth-like climate billions of years ago, with a thick atmosphere and liquid water. Since water is essential to life, if life on Mars ever existed, it could have been maintained in sufficient quantities by key components such as organic carbon.

Organic carbon has been found on Mars before, but we have never calculated the total amount present in rocks.

Gale Crater has a habitable environment for life

The Curiosity rover took samples from mudstone rocks 3.5 billion years old with organic carbon in the Yellowknife Bay Formation of Gale Crater. There was also an ancient lake at this site.

The crater also had other conditions suitable for life, including chemical energy sources, low acidity, and other essential elements such as oxygen, sulfur and nitrogen.

Scientists believe that this place would have provided a habitable environment for life.

How was the experiment done?

Curiosity carried the collected samples to its ‘Sample Analysis at Mars’ (SAM) instrument. An oven heated the pulverized rock to a progressively higher temperature and used oxygen and heat to convert it into carbon dioxide.

This experiment allowed SAM to measure the carbon isotope ratio. Organic carbon is rich in carbon-12 and by measuring it, scientists determined the amount of organic carbon in rocks.