What Caused the Carbon Isotopes Found on Mars?

Researchers examined 24 Martian sediment samples collected from six exposed locations in the Gale Crater that contained mudstones of an ancient lake. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

‘Intriguing’ Carbon Isotopes on Mars Could Be From Cosmic Dust, UV Radiation or Ancient Life

by Elizabeth Gamillo/Smithsonianmag.com

Since NASA’s Curiosity rover’s descent on Mars in 2012, it has rolled the planet’s dusty surface searching for signs of ancient small life forms like microbes. The rover uses its seven-foot-long arm to drill into rocks and analyze the dust’s makeup for chemical fingerprints of the Red Planet’s history. A new analysis of sediment samples collected by Curiosity revealed an unusual amount of carbon isotopes, reports Science’s Paul Voosen.

Chemical signatures like these are considered strong—but heavily debated—evidence for prehistoric, microbial life here on Earth, but the two planets are ultimately too different to make any definitive claims based on direct comparisons alone. Alternatively, scientists suggest the strange isotopes could have been caused by space dust or the degradation of carbon dioxide from ultraviolet light, reports Andrew Griffin for the Independent. Researchers published details of the carbon signature this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Carbon is considered a building block of all life on planet Earth. In the carbon cycle, carbon atoms move from the atmosphere to the ground and then back to the atmosphere through processes like photosynthesis, decomposition, and human and animal emissions on land and sea. Read More:


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  1. The sixth primordial element in the periodic table is likely everywhere in the universe. I have no idea what any of this is about at all. Glycine can form without water, or so I have heard. Why would carbon be a surprise ? It isn’t.

  2. Diamonds, formed under extreme heat and pressure, are made of carbon. It might be possible that carbon deposits on Mars were formed by asteroid or comet impacts.
    The world’s largest diamond deposit, Popigai Crater in northern Russia, was formed 36 million years ago from an asteroid impact.

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