Indigenous and exogenous organics and surface–atmosphere cycling inferred from carbon and oxygen isotopes at Gale crater

H. B. Franz, P. R. Mahaffy, C. R. Webster, G. J. Flesch, E. Raaen, C. Freissinet, S. K. Atreya, C. H. House, A. C. McAdam, C. A. Knudson, P. D. Archer, J. C. Stern, A. Steele, B. Sutter, J. L. Eigenbrode, D. P. Glavin, J. M.T. Lewis, C. A. Malespin, M. Millan, D. W. MingR. Navarro-González, R. E. Summons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Since landing at Gale crater, Mars, in August 2012, the Curiosity rover has searched for evidence of past habitability, such as organic compounds, which have proved elusive to previous missions. We report results from pyrolysis experiments by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, focusing on the isotopic compositions of evolved CO2 and O2, which provide clues to the identities and origins of carbon- and oxygen-bearing phases in surface materials. We find that O2 is enriched in 18O (δ18O about 40‰). Its behaviour reflects the presence of oxychlorine compounds at the Martian surface, common to aeolian and sedimentary deposits. Peak temperatures and isotope ratios (δ18O from −61 ± 4‰ to 64 ± 7‰; δ13C from –25 ± 20‰ to 56 ± 11‰) of evolved CO2 indicate the presence of carbon in multiple phases. We suggest that some organic compounds reflect exogenous input from meteorites and interplanetary dust, while others could derive from in situ formation processes on Mars, such as abiotic photosynthesis or electrochemical reduction of CO2. The observed carbonate abundances could reflect a sink for about 425–640 millibar of atmospheric CO2, while an additional 100–170 millibar could be stored in oxalates formed at the surface. In addition, oxygen isotope ratios of putative carbonates suggest the possibility of widespread cryogenic carbonate formation during a previous era.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)526-532
Number of pages7
JournalNature Astronomy
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics


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