A new study has revealed asteroid impacts on ancient Mars could have produced ingredients for life if Mars’ atmosphere was rich in hydrogen. Researchers on Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument said a hydrogen-rich atmosphere would explain how the planet was habitable. The ingredients are nitrites (NO2) and nitrates (NO3).
Both nitrates are important to establish and sustain life.
The rover discovered both ingredients in soil and rock samples within the Gale Crater which is the site of ancient lakes on Mars.
Researchers recreated the early Martian atmosphere to understand how fixed nitrogen may have been deposited in the crater.
They found that the Red Planet may have been warmer in the past.
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Dr Rafael Navarro-González said: “The big surprise was that the yield of nitrate increased when hydrogen was included in the laser-shocked experiments that simulated asteroid impacts.
“This was counterintuitive as hydrogen leads to an oxygen-deficient environment while the formation of nitrate requires oxygen.
“However, the presence of hydrogen led to a faster cooling of the shock-heated gas, trapping nitric oxide, the precursor of nitrate, at elevated temperatures where its yield was higher.”
Climate models show hydrogen in the atmosphere is necessary to raise temperatures to have liquid at the planet’s surface.
Christopher McKay explained the presence of nitrate is of “major astrobiological significance.”
He said: “Because of the low levels of nitrogen gas in the atmosphere, nitrate is the only biologically useful form of nitrogen on Mars.
“Thus, its presence in the soil is of major astrobiological significance.
“This paper helps us understand the possible sources of that nitrate.”