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Nitrogen containing organic molecules discovered in Martian meteorites

Date: 30 April 2020 Tags: Space

Issue

A research team have found nitrogen-bearing organic material in carbonate minerals in a Martian meteorite. This organic material has most likely been preserved for 4 billion years since Mars’ Noachian age.

 

Background

Because carbonate minerals typically precipitate from the groundwater, this finding suggests a wet and organic-rich early Mars, which could have been habitable and favourable for life to start.

 

Details

  • Recent studies from rover-based Mars exploration have detected strong evidence for Martian organics but little is known about where they came from, how old they are, how widely distributed and preserved they may be, or what their possible relationship with biochemical activity could be.

  • Martian meteorites are pieces of Mars' surface that were themselves blasted into space by meteor impacts, and which ultimately landed on Earth. They provide important insights into Martian history.

  • One meteorite in particular, named Allan Hills (ALH) 84001, named for the region in Antarctica it was found in 1984, is especially important. It contains orange-coloured carbonate minerals, which precipitated from salty liquid water on Mars' near-surface 4 billion years ago.

  • In addition to carbon, nitrogen (N) is an essential element for terrestrial life and a useful tracer for planetary system evolution. However, due to previous technical limitations, nitrogen had not yet been measured in ALH84001.

  • This new research conducted by the joint ELSI-JAXA team used state-of-the-art analytical techniques to study the nitrogen content of the ALH84001 carbonates, and the team is now confident they have found the first solid evidence for 4-billion-year-old Martian organics containing nitrogen.

  • They also used a technique called Nitrogen K-edge micro X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (µ-XANES) spectroscopy, which allowed them to detect nitrogen present in very small amounts and to determine what chemical form that nitrogen was in.

  • Mars' present surface is too harsh for most organics to survive. However, scientists predict that organic compounds could be preserved in near-surface settings for billions of years. This seems to be the case for the nitrogen-bearing organic compounds the team found in the ALH84001.

  • There are two main possibilities: either they came from outside Mars, or they formed on Mars. Early in the Solar System's history, Mars was likely showered with significant amounts of organic matter, for example from carbon-rich meteorites, comets and dust particles.