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Unraveling secrets of Mars’ atmosphere: A historic discovery by European space agency

The composition of carbon monoxide isotopes found in the Martian atmosphere is playing a pivotal role in unraveling the history of the Red Planet.

NASA Mars rover discovery excites scientists

Homer Simpson said that the universe was like a donut; and if so, each of the colored shavings that adorn it are the planets, stars and satellites that make up that strange galactic melody. Each sprinkle has its own history, and it is vestiges of that history that oft puncture the galactic blackness.

Investigations into the possibility that at some time life once existed on Mars continue at pace. Studies are piling up. Some speak of ancient rivers, dry for many solar rotations. Others come out of its geology. The most recent one points to its atmosphere as the telltale of those years buried in red sand.

From the enigma of life to a cocktail of sunlight

It was a discovery of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) which corroborates the theory that scientists had already considered previously. And on this occasion, the layer of gas that surrounds Mars has given them a clue that is no less than historic. It turns out that it’s formed from carbon monoxide with less heavy carbon than they expected.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem important; it is full of the typical scientific jargon that is not easy to understand. However, the finding has an immediate translation: there is an explanation for certain compounds of organic matter, based on carbon, found in the soil of the red planet. They would not be indicative of life, but the result of a galactic combination: a cocktail of sunlight and intricate chemical processes.

Photo by Handout / CNES / VR2Planet 2021 / AFP
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Photo by Handout / CNES / VR2Planet 2021 / AFPHANDOUTAFP

Researchers have reached this conclusion after subjecting an exhaustive analysis to all the data that the TGO has been able to collect after eight dizzying orbits between March and April 2022. This is hand the NOMAD (Nadir Occultation for Mars Discovery) has played to reveal the secrets of the universe.

Like in that pink donut

Shohei Aoki is the lead author of the study, published in the Planetary Science Journal. “Measuring the carbon isotopic ratio in monoxide is carbon is a powerful way to understand where the planet’s organic matter comes from and reveal the habitability history of Mars”, he said.

The scientific background of the research is simpler than the chemical compositions suggest. There are two types of carbon isotopes in the atmosphere: 12 and 13. The first is more predominant; the second, heavier. It is only a question of measuring the relative abundance of the isotopes, and the result speaks for itself. When the rover landed in Gale Crater, the many deposits there made the job of writing a book 3.5 billion years later an ‘easy’ task.

“Any phenomenon on Mars that could be caused by life is cause for enthusiasm, but our findings point in a different direction”, added the report co-author, Yuichiro Ueno. A chemical path is followed, which in reality is an endless path of effects and consequences. Like on earth. Like in that pink donut.


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