In the early days of the Curiosity mission on Mars, scientists were excited by what they found in what was once a mud-flat they called Yellowknife Bay. After months of drilling and testing, the mission team concluded that the site once had the roughly neutral water, an array of chemicals that could support metabolism and the organic carbon compounds needed for life. So Yellowknife Bay and the surrounding Gale Crater were deemed to have once been “habitable.”
The finding of organic carbon was a major step forward because it is essential as a building block for the emergence of life as we know it. The readings were clear that the organic carbon was present, but it has taken a decade to produce the first measurement of how much of the precious organic carbon was present.
The results, published late last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show higher organic carbon levels than in some “low-life” environments on Earth. But those levels are still quite reduced and point to an unwelcoming Mars even in an area declared to be habitable billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer.
“Total organic carbon is one of several measurements that help us understand how much material is available as feedstock for prebiotic chemistry and potentially biology,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“We found at least 200 to 273 parts per million of organic carbon. This is comparable to or even more than the amount found in rocks in very low-life places on Earth, such as parts of the Atacama Desert in South America, and more than has been detected in Mars meteorites.”
The Atacama is one of the driest places on Earth, but it does support some life — bacteria under the surface of the desert and even some desert flowers in areas that experience fog. Not surprisingly, NASA and other scientists often use the Atacama when they study conditions on ancient Mars.
This carbon data has been a long time coming.