NASA’s Curiosity Rover Measures Key Life Ingredient on Mars for First Time

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Yellowknife Bay Mars Crop

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to capture this area at the edge of a location nicknamed “Yellowknife Bay.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Newly published research quantifies the presence of organic carbon in Martian rocks.

For the first time, scientists using data from

“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 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 present in these rocks.

Yellowknife Bay Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to capture this area at the edge of a location nicknamed “Yellowknife Bay.” The image is a combination of three mosaics taken on December 24, 25, and 28, 2012 (the 137th, 138th, and 141st Martian days, or sols, of the mission). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Although the surface of Mars is currently inhospitable for life, 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 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

NASA Curiosity Rover Yellowknife Bay Mars

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity used its left Navigation Camera to record this view of the step down into a shallow depression called ‘Yellowknife Bay.’ The descent into the basin crossed a step about 2 feet high, visible in the upper half of this image.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Navigation Camera (Navcam) to capture this view after it entered a location nicknamed “Yellowknife Bay” on December 12, 2012, the 125th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To make the measurement,…



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