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Something’s Cooking on Mars

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Drilling sites at Yellowknife bay - in the foreground is the 'Sheepbed' mudstone formation (Credit:NASA/JP-Caltech/MSSS)

What do you get when you cook buried martian mudstone in your oven? The answer appears to be the kind of gases you’d expect if you cooked organic material here on Earth.

A couple of weeks ago the latest results from the Curiosity rover’s investigations at Yellowknife Bay in the Gale Crater structure on Mars hit the newsstands in a six paper spread in the journal Science. One of the most intriguing studies involves the ‘cooking’ of martian material by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) device.

Crudely speaking, the recipe was this: first, place a representative sample of surface dust in an oven, heat it at steadily rising temperatures all the way to just over 800 Celsius and continually measure the composition of gases released (or ‘evolved’). Second, drill at a couple of sites 5 centimeters into what appears to have once been the muddy bottom of a lake, scoop that material into a clean oven and repeat the cooking procedure.

Drilled out martian mudstone...(Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The surface dust has been exposed to martian weathering, including the persistent and damaging effects of natural cosmic radiation, nasty surface chemicals like perchlorates, and ultraviolet light. All of which is guaranteed to break down and destroy any long chain organic carbon molecules. The drilled out mudstone on the other hand has been relatively protected by overlaying material.

Both types of sample release a mix of gases at different temperatures. Compounds like water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride and chloromethane – to name just a few.

Except the mudstone drill samples (from two locations), release more carbon dioxide at lower temperatures, around 300 Celsius, than the surface sample.

So what’s going on? Perhaps the most telling clue – and it is just a clue, none of these results are definitive – is that for one of the mudstone samples, the surge in carbon dioxide coincides with a drop in oxygen being evolved from the breakdown of perchlorates.

The simplest explanation for this behavior would be that something is undergoing combustion, and using up that oxygen. If we did this experiment here on Earth that mystery substance would most likely be composed of organic carbon compounds, the detritus of carbon-fixing life. The concentrations implied by the cooking experiments on Mars indicate a source of carbon at about the 500 parts-per-million level – a healthy quantity.

It’s a very exciting find, except there’s another potential source of lots of organic carbon on the near surface of Mars – meteorites and interplanetary dust. With a pitifully thin atmosphere to protect it, the surface of Mars is a veritable smorgasbord of carbon-rich material deposited from the surrounding solar system, easily building up a concentration of organics at the few tens to few hundreds of parts-per-million level. The carbon molecules here come from the ancient stewpot of proto-planetary chemistry during the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

At this point we can’t tell what the source of these potential martian organics is. It could be the remains of an ancient  ecosystem in muddy lakewater, or it could just be a layer of primitive meteoritic matter. The rather caustic, oxidizing, nature of martian soil also still presents a real hurdle in chemical analyses, both from reacting in-situ with carbon compounds and in Curiosity’s ovens. One of the next major challenges will be to figure out a reliable way to pick through these different factors in order to establish the origins of these carbon compounds.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Firoz 3:17 pm 12/21/2013

    I doubt if there was anything there We wasted a lot of funds and came empty handed . May be the photograph are good tell something but that is all ” and it is just a clue, none of these results are definitive ” We have immense doubt don the space but e spend lavishly there –

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  2. 2. Carlyle 4:27 am 12/24/2013

    We tend to forget just how marvellous these accomplishments are. Of course we always want more & soon.

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  3. 3. hkraznodar 3:11 pm 12/30/2013

    I’m a pretty avid supporter of the space program. I think that barring catastrophe, we humans will eventually colonize Mars. Even if the only reason we come up with is “because we can” we will do this.

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