Carbon was identified in a sample of dirt uncovered by NASA’s Curiosity Rover earlier this month, suggesting that ancient life on Mars may have been there.
The Curiosity Rover has been investigating the Gale Crater on Mars for the last decade, a formation that was once home to a body of water three billion years ago. The mission is expected to last another decade.
Carbon-12 and carbon-13 are the two forms of carbon isotopes frequently found in nature — the carbon-12 isotope and the carbon-13 isotope. Compared to carbon-13, the Curiosity team discovered a much larger quantity of carbon-12, the lighter of the two isotopes, which forms weaker chemical bonds and is susceptible to faster chemical reactions.
Carbon-12 is more prevalent in biological compounds due to the latter characteristic.
Curiosity has also discovered high concentrations of methane in the Martian atmosphere. The team hypothesizes that the methane gas was released from underground reservoirs. According to specific theories, the gas is formed due to chemical interactions between minerals, carbon dioxide, and water.
Some scientists believe that methane and carbon on Mars are inextricably connected; they propose a scenario in which bacteria absorbed the gas and deposited the carbon in the planet’s soil. However, no definite proof of such a process has yet been discovered by academics.
Why the Presence of Carbon on Mars Indicates the Presence of Life
Carbon is a telltale indicator of much larger life activities, as it stays at the base of organisms and recycles atoms here on Earth through its own cycle. Carbon is also the most abundant element on the planet. It is transported from the atmosphere to the ground and then back to the atmosphere. As a result, researchers may utilize carbon atoms to piece together a more comprehensive picture of early life on Mars.
In August 2021, the Curiosity Rover landed on the Martian surface in the Gale Crater. Mars’ Gale Crater, which is 96 miles in length, was formed by a meteor that slammed the planet’s surface around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. It is thought that the crater was originally home to a large body of water.
Between August 2021 and July 2021, the Curiosity rover dug into the dirt of the Gale Crater. Once the samples had been heated to 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit, the elements inside them separated, allowing the carbon atoms to be released into the atmosphere.
“The samples extremely depleted in carbon 13 are a little like samples from Australia taken from sediment that was 2.7 billion years old,” said Christopher H. House, lead study author and professor of geoscience at Pennsylvania State University, in a statement. Those samples were caused by biological activity when methane was consumed by ancient microbial mats, but we can’t necessarily say that on Mars because it’s a planet that may have formed out of different materials and processes than Earth.”
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