Carbon isotopes and life on Mars

Ever since the moon landing, the next giant leap for mankind has become a manned mission to Mars. One of the main reasons for the rising interest in Mars is the prospect of finding extraterrestrial life. Several science missions have studied the prospects of past or present life on Mars. However, lacking the supreme analytical ability of a skilled astronaut, these missions have had to settle for investigating so-called biosignatures, which can be everything from basic environmental conditions, such as the presence of liquid water, to certain chemistry associated with living organisms. This project focuses on the possibility of using the isotopic composition of CO2 as a biosignature.

It has long been known that terrestrial life prefer 12C over 13C in biosynthesis, making the ratio of 13C/12C in biotic deposits less than in the atmosphere. Assuming life on Mars to be similar to that on Earth, it is reasonable to believe that the isotopic composition of carbon would vary with the presence of life also there. However, to be able to draw such conclusions, more information on the isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere, regolith, and bedrock must be gathered. This will require precise measurements in many different places on Mars. This project proposes a miniaturized, rover- or lander-based device for measuring the 13C/12C ratio in both the atmosphere and in oxidized solid samples. Such an instrument should have excellent prospects in competing for payload slots in upcoming Martian landers and rover missions, and its applicability would be far from limited to Mars. However, in order to become competitive, the proposed instrument has to deliver precise and reliable measurements, and, simultaneously, be as small and power efficient as possible.

The content of the figure is described in the caption
Picture of the developed prototype that weighs 500 g, consumes 1-5 W and fits in a butter package.

Funded by

Swedish National Space Agancy 2015-2020

Time period

2015 –2020

Partner organizations

Dept Materials Science and Engineering, Uppsala University

Project leader

Anders Persson, Microsystems Technology, Uppsala University

Project members

Ragnar Seton, Microsystems Technology, Uppsala University

Last modified: 2022-04-01