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Organic matter preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale crater, Mars

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Science  08 Jun 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6393, pp. 1096-1101
DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9185

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Measuring martian organics and methane

The Curiosity rover has been sampling on Mars for the past 5 years (see the Perspective by ten Kate). Eigenbrode et al. used two instruments in the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) suite to catch traces of complex organics preserved in 3-billion-year-old sediments. Heating the sediments released an array of organics and volatiles reminiscent of organic-rich sedimentary rock found on Earth. Most methane on Earth is produced by biological sources, but numerous abiotic processes have been proposed to explain martian methane. Webster et al. report atmospheric measurements of methane covering 3 martian years and found that the background level varies with the local seasons. The seasonal variation provides an important clue for determining the origin of martian methane.

Science, this issue p. 1096, p. 1093; see also p. 1068

Abstract

Establishing the presence and state of organic matter, including its possible biosignatures, in martian materials has been an elusive quest, despite limited reports of the existence of organic matter on Mars. We report the in situ detection of organic matter preserved in lacustrine mudstones at the base of the ~3.5-billion-year-old Murray formation at Pahrump Hills, Gale crater, by the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite onboard the Curiosity rover. Diverse pyrolysis products, including thiophenic, aromatic, and aliphatic compounds released at high temperatures (500° to 820°C), were directly detected by evolved gas analysis. Thiophenes were also observed by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry. Their presence suggests that sulfurization aided organic matter preservation. At least 50 nanomoles of organic carbon persists, probably as macromolecules containing 5% carbon as organic sulfur molecules.

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