NASA’s Curiosity rover finds fresh signs of ingredients for life on Mars

Mar 26, 2015

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

By Amina Khan

Mars’s life-friendly past just got friendlier. Using samples previously collected by the NASA rover Curiosity, scientists have discovered evidence of nitrates in Martian rock: nitrogen compounds that on Earth are a crucial source of nutrients for living things.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lend further support to the idea that the Red Planet, now barren and dry, could once have hosted habitable environments.

Although planetary scientists have been on the hunt for organic carbon – the type of carbon-containing molecules that could be used and produced by living things – nitrogen also plays an essential role in life as we know it, said lead author Jennifer Stern, a planetary geochemist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

For example, nitrogen is a key component of nucleobases that make up RNA and DNA, and of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

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4 comments on “NASA’s Curiosity rover finds fresh signs of ingredients for life on Mars

  • I would have expected the default expectation for the composition of rocks would be the same as earth.

    So I would have though the lack of nitrates would be the news.

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  • @OP – Most nitrates on Earth are produced by living things, Stern said. But in the case of Mars, the team believes the nitrates were created during a “thermal shock,” such as a lightning strike or an asteroid impact.

    Nitrogen is common in the Solar System, although Mars lost most of its atmosphere long ago.

    Lightning or any electric spark, can cause chemical reactions with atmospheric Nitrogen, but if there was a comet or asteroid impact, it could even have brought Nitrogen or Nitrates, from the outer Solar System.

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  • I can almost hear the someone come up with a theologist conspiracy theory say that Mars was god’s first experiment and failed so he created the earth and why not? I mean if Krishna’s mom could see the universe in some dirt he got in his mouth, the god experiment theory is not so far fetched….

    It is not surprising to me they found elements consistent with the rest of the solar system or galaxy even and potentially elsewhere. Seemingly we are all made up of patterns which replicate in the same consistent manner across what has been discovered in our surrounding space.

    Like the Oceans in Europa or anything else which has not been inspected by going there, remains a bit of an enigma. But it is safe to say I think, that there is a little bit of us everywhere….

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  • @OP – Although planetary scientists have been on the hunt for organic carbon – the type of carbon-containing molecules that could be used and produced by living things – nitrogen also plays an essential role in life as we know it,

    Nitrogen takes various forms in the Solar-System, and is found with various mixtures of its isotopes.
    .Triton is the largest of Neptune’s 13 moons. It is unusual because it is the only large moon in our solar system that orbits in the opposite direction of its planet’s rotation — a retrograde orbit.

    Scientists think Triton is a Kuiper Belt Object captured by Neptune’s gravity millions of years ago. It shares many similarities with Pluto, the best known world of the Kuiper Belt.

    Triton’s thin atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen with small amounts of methane. This atmosphere most likely originates from Triton’s volcanic activity, which is driven by seasonal heating by the Sun. Triton, Io and Venus are the only bodies in the solar system besides Earth that are known to be volcanically active at the present time.

    Triton is one of the coolest objects in our solar system. It is so cold that most of Triton’s nitrogen is condensed as frost, giving its surface an icy sheen that reflects 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it.
    NASA’s Voyager 2 — the only spacecraft to fly past Neptune and Triton — found surface temperatures of -235°C (-391°F)
    Formation of Nitrogen Atmosphere On Saturn’s Moon, Titan

    This research shows that the present inventory of nitrogen on Titan can be traced to NH3 (ammonia) photochemistry, and that this was the most likely process by which Titan has acquired its nitrogen atmosphere. The conversion of ammonia to nitrogen can only occur at certain temperature conditions (between 250 and 150 K, where the nitrogen was forming). These possible temperatures would have existed for sometime (on the order of 100 million years) in Titan’s atmosphere. It is interesting to consider the implications for the rest of the Cronian system: nitrogen would have been locked up in form of ammonia ice in the early sub-nebula, and therefore was brought in the same way to other Saturnian moons, such as Enceladus. Recent observations of possible molecular nitrogen on Enceladus need to be reconciled with this emerging picture.

    Significance to Solar System Exploration

    As noted since the Huygens probe landed on Titan in December, 2005, Titan and Earth have a lot of similarities– dating back to the very beginning. The most important aspect of Titan is that it has an atmosphere that has the same basic chemical building blocks as Earth. In particular, no other body in the solar system outside of Earth has a massive nitrogen atmosphere. To these scientists, studying Titan is like looking through a window into the past of the Earth. It helps decipher the conditions existing in our solar system when Earth began to form, and helps to understand how its atmosphere came about
    Analysing the isotopic composition of nitrogen in the solar wind was the second highest priority science objective of the Genesis mission.

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