Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Life's molecules could lie within reach of Mars Curiosity rover

06.07.2012
Stick a shovel in the ground and scoop. That's about how deep scientists need to go in order to find evidence for ancient life on Mars, if there is any to be found, a new study suggests. That's within reach of Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover expected to land on the Red Planet next month.
The new findings, which suggest optimal depths and locations to probe for organic molecules like those that compose living organisms as we know them, could help the newest Mars rover scout for evidence of life beneath the surface and within rocks. The results suggest that, should Mars harbor simple organic molecules, NASA's prospects for discovering them during Curiosity's explorations are better than previously thought, said Alexander Pavlov of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, lead author of the study.

While these simple molecules could provide evidence of ancient Martian life, they could also stem from other sources like meteorites and volcanoes. Complex organic molecules could hint more strongly at the possibility of past life on the planet. These molecules, made up of 10 or more carbon atoms, could resemble known building blocks of life such as the amino acids that make up proteins.

Although complex carbon structures are trickier to find because they're more vulnerable to cosmic radiation that continuously bombards and penetrates the surface of the Red Planet, the new research by Pavlov and his colleagues provides suggestions for where to start looking. The amounts of radiation that rock and soil is exposed to over time, and how deep that radiation penetrates – an indicator of how deep a rover would have to sample to find intact organic molecules – is a subject of ongoing research.

The scientists report that chances of finding these molecules in the first 2 centimeters (0.8 inches) of Martian soil is close to zero. That top layer, they calculate, will absorb a total of 500 million grays of cosmic radiation over the course of one billion years – capable of destroying all organic material. A mere 50 grays, absorbed immediately or over time, would cause almost certain death to a human.

However, within 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) beneath the surface, the amount of radiation reduces tenfold, to 50 million grays. Although that's still extreme, the team reports that simple organic molecules, such as a single formaldehyde molecule, could exist at this depth – and in some places, specifically young craters, the complex building blocks of life could remain as well.
The study is scheduled to be published 7 July in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

"Right now the challenge is that past Martian landers haven't seen any organic material whatsoever," Pavlov said. "We know that organic molecules have to be there but we can't find any of them in the soil."

As Mars revolves around the Sun, it is constantly bombarded by very small meteors and interplanetary dust particles, which have plenty of organic compounds in them, Pavlov said. Therefore, over time they would have accumulated at the Martian surface.

The Mars Science Laboratory is the newest and largest of NASA's Martian landers and is scheduled to touch down August 2012. Curiosity doesn't have a shovel but, equipped with drilling technology, it will collect, store, and analyze samples of Martian material down to 5 centimeters below the surface of rock and soil. Past Martian rovers have only collected loose soil atop the surface that has been directly exposed to cosmic radiation, making the possibility for detecting organic molecules exceedingly slim.

When evaluating how deep organic molecules might persist beneath the surface, previous studies have mainly focused on the maximum depth, approximately 1.5 meters (5 feet), that cosmic radiation reaches because beyond that point organic molecules could survive, unharmed, for billions of years, Pavlov said. However, drilling to 1.5 meters or deeper is currently too expensive to engineer for a Martian rover.

So the team focused on more attainable depths – the first 20 cm (8 in) below the surface. They modeled the complex scenario of cosmic ray accumulation and its effects on organic molecules using a collection of important variables, including Martian rock and soil composition, changes in the planet's atmospheric density over time, and cosmic rays' various energy levels.

In addition to the finding that some simple carbon-containing molecules could exist within 10 cm (4 in) depth, the scientists emphasize that certain regions on Mars may have radiation levels far lower than 50 million grays near the surface – and so more complex molecules like amino acids could remain intact.

In order to find these molecules within the rover's drilling range (1 to 5 cm), the scientists found the best bet is to look at "fresh" craters that are no more than 10 million years old, unlike past expeditionary sites that mainly sampled from landscapes undisturbed for billions of years.

Compared to Martian landscapes undisturbed for one billion years or more, relatively young craters exhibit freshly exposed rock and soil that was once deeper beneath the surface. . The new research indicates that this material will have been near the surface for a short enough period of time that it's overall exposure to harmful radiation would not have been enough to wipe out organic molecules.

"When you have a chance to drill, don't waste it on perfectly preserved (landscapes)," Pavlov said. "You want to go to fresh craters because there's probably a better chance to detect complex organic molecules. Let Nature work for you."

Lewis Dartnell, a postdoctoral researcher at the University College London in the U.K., said the paper was a nice study that combined results from other studies with the latest radiation modeling. Dartnell was not part of the study, but has published previous work involving effects of cosmic radiation on the Martian surface.

"The next logical step," Dartnell said, "is to actually experiment and have a radiation source hit amino acids with radiation of similar energies as cosmic rays and determine how quickly those amino acids are destroyed because models can only do so much."

Curiosity is set to land in Gale crater – the same crater where the Spirit rover landed in 2004– on August 6. Whether this 3.5-billion-year-old crater has fresher craters within it is uncertain. However, Pavlov hopes that his team's findings will at least help guide NASA on where to drill once the rover has landed and influence where future generations of rover landers will touch down.

Notes for Journalists
Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) of educational and scientific institutions who have registered with AGU can download a PDF copy of this paper in press by clicking on this link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2012GL052166

Or, you may order a copy of the final paper by emailing your request to Kate Ramsayer at kramsayer@agu.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.

Neither the paper nor this press release are under embargo.

Title: "Degradation of the organic molecules in the shallow subsurface of Mars due to irradiation by cosmic rays"

Authors: Alexander A. Pavlov: Planetary Environments Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, USA;

G. Vasilyev: Laboratory of Mass Spectrometry, Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia;

V. M. Ostryakov: St. Petersburg State Technical University, St. Petersburg, Russia;

A. K. Pavlov: Laboratory of Mass Spectrometry, Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia;

P. Mahaffy: Planetary Environments Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, USA.

Contact information for the authors: Alexander A. Pavlov, Email: alexander.pavlov@nasa.gov, Telephone: 301-614-5945

Kate Ramsayer | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.agu.org

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Predicting unpredictability: Information theory offers new way to read ice cores
07.12.2016 | Santa Fe Institute

nachricht Sea ice hit record lows in November
07.12.2016 | University of Colorado at Boulder

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Closing the carbon loop

08.12.2016 | Life Sciences

Applicability of dynamic facilitation theory to binary hard disk systems

08.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Scientists track chemical and structural evolution of catalytic nanoparticles in 3-D

08.12.2016 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>