Scientists have used data from NASA’s Curiosity rover to measure 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,” announced Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We found at least 200 to 273 parts per million 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.”
Curiosity is advancing the domain of astrobiology by analyzing Mars’ habitability and exploring its climate and geology. The rover drilled samples from 3.5-billion-year-old mudstone rocks in the Yellowknife Bay formation of Gale crater. It’s the site of a historical lake on Mars.
Mudstone at Gale crater was established as very fine sediment in water settled on the floor of a lake and was buried. Organic carbon was a portion of this material and got involved in the mudstone. Moreover, with liquid water and organic carbon, Gale crater had other circumstances conducive to life, like chemical energy sources, low acidity, and other elements essential for biology, like oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. “Basically, this location would have offered a habitable environment for life, if it ever was present,” announced Stern, lead author of a paper about this research published June 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.