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Did life exist on Mars? Search for organic and inorganic signatures, one of the goals for “SAM” (sample analysis at Mars)

Advances in Space Research
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/s0273-1177(03)00523-4
  • Mars
  • Astrobiology
  • Organic Matter
  • Derivatisation
  • Pyrolysis
  • Gas Chromatography
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Geography


Abstract Observation of Mars shows signs of a past Earth-like climate, and, in that case, there is no objection to the possible development of life, in the underground or at the surface, as in the terrestrial primitive biosphere. Sample analysis at Mars (SAM) is an experiment which may be proposed for atmospheric, ground and underground in situ measurements. One of its goals is to bring direct or indirect information on the possibility for life to have developed on Mars, and to detect traces of past or present biological activity. With this aim, it focuses on the detection of organic molecules: volatile organics are extracted from the sample by simple heating, whereas refractory molecules are made analyzable (i.e. volatile), using derivatization technique or fragmentation by pyrolysis. Gaseous mixtures thus obtained are analyzed by gas chromatography associated to mass spectrometry. Beyond organics, carbonates and other salts are associated to the dense and moist atmosphere necessary to the development of life, and might have formed and accumulated in some places on Mars. They represent another target for SAM. Heating of the samples allows the analysis of structural gases of these minerals (CO 2 from carbonates, etc.), enabling to identify them. We also show, in this paper, that it may be possible to discriminate between abiotic minerals, and minerals (shells, etc.) created by living organisms.

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