The nature of carbon on Mars has been the subject of intense research since NASA’s Viking-era missions in the 1970s, due to the link between organic (carbon-containing) molecules and the detection of extraterrestrial life. Analyses of Martian meteorites marked the first confirmation that macromolecular carbon (MMC)—large chains of carbon and hydrogen—are a common occurrence in Mars rocks. More recently, researchers have applied the lessons taken from studies of meteorites to the data being gathered by the Curiosity rover, finding similar MMC signatures on Mars itself. Now, the central question is “what is the synthesis mechanism of this abiotic organic carbon?”
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Image: A high-resolution transmission electron micrograph (scale bar = 50 nm) of a grain from a Martian meteorite. Reminiscent of a long dinner fork, organic carbon layers were found between the intact “tines.” This texture was created when the volcanic minerals of the Martian rock interacted with a salty brine and became the anode and cathode of a naturally occurring battery in a corrosion reaction. This reaction would then have enough energy—under certain conditions—to synthesize organic carbon.
Credit: Andrew Steele