Carbon Detected In Martian Meteorites
May 25, 2012

Carbon Detected In Martian Meteorites

Lee Rannals for

Carbon, a building block for creating life, has been detected in a Martian meteorite that landed on Earth, according to a Carnegie Institution for Science study.

The researchers were able to detect strong evidence that complex carbon chemistry has taken place on Mars.

"These findings show that the storage of reduced carbon molecules on Mars occurred throughout the planet's history and might have been similar to processes that occurred on the ancient Earth," Andrew Steele, lead author of the paper published in Science Express, said.

Molecules containing large chains of carbon and hydrogen have been found previously in Mars meteorites, but scientists have disagreed about how the carbon formed.  The latest study proves that Mars is capable of producing organic carbon.

"Although this study has not yielded evidence that Mars has or once may have supported life, it does address some important questions about the sources of organic carbon on Mars," Mary Voytek, director of NASA's Astrobiology Program at the agency's Headquarters in Washington, said.

The team examined samples taken from 11 Martian meteorites, uncovering a period of about 4.2 billion years of the Red Planet's history.  The scientists were able to detect carbon compounds in 10 of the meteorites.

The team showed through their research that some of the macromolecules of carbon were indigenous to the meteorites by using sophisticated research techniques.

Next, the researchers looked at the carbon molecules in relation to other materials in the meteorites to see what types of chemical processing the samples had endured before finding their way towards Earth.

The findings show that carbon was created by volcanic activity on Mars, and that Mars has been doing organic chemistry for most of its history.

NASA, which helped fund the study, said the team's research could help in future quests to find evidence of life on Mars.

"With the Curiosity rover scheduled to land in August, these new research results may help Mars Science Laboratory scientists fine-tune their investigations on the surface of the planet by understanding where organic carbon may be found and how it is preserved," Voytek said.

Steele agrees about the importance of using the findings for future missions to Mars, and emphasized how crucial understanding the make-up of the macromolecules is.

"Understanding the genesis of these non-biological, carbon-containing macromolecules on Mars is crucial for developing future missions to detect evidence of life on our neighboring planet," Steel said.