Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Happens to Complex Organic Molecules Under Martian Conditions?

Laboratory insights into the chemical and kinetic evolution of several organic molecules under simulated Mars surface UV radiation conditions


Poch et al


The search for organic carbon at the surface of Mars, as clues of past habitability or remnants of life, is a major science goal of Mars’ exploration. Understanding the chemical evolution of organic molecules under current martian environmental conditions is essential to support the analyses performed in situ. What molecule can be preserved? What is the timescale of organic evolution at the surface? This paper presents the results of laboratory investigations dedicated to monitor the evolution of organic molecules when submitted to simulated Mars surface ultraviolet radiation (190–400 nm), mean temperature (218 ± 2 K) and pressure (6 ± 1 mbar) conditions. Experiments are done with the MOMIE simulation setup (for Mars Organic Molecules Irradiation and Evolution) allowing both a qualitative and quantitative characterization of the evolution the tested molecules undergo (Poch, O. et al. [2013]. Planet. Space Sci. 85, 188–197). The chemical structures of the solid products and the kinetic parameters of the photoreaction (photolysis rate, half-life and quantum efficiency of photodecomposition) are determined for glycine, urea, adenine and chrysene. Mellitic trianhydride is also studied in order to complete a previous study done with mellitic acid (Stalport, F., Coll, P., Szopa, C., Raulin, F. [2009]. Astrobiology 9, 543–549), by studying the evolution of mellitic trianhydride. The results show that solid layers of the studied molecules have half-lives of 10–103 h at the surface of Mars, when exposed directly to martian UV radiation. However, organic layers having aromatic moieties and reactive chemical groups, as adenine and mellitic acid, lead to the formation of photoresistant solid residues, probably of macromolecular nature, which could exhibit a longer photostability. Such solid organic layers are found in micrometeorites or could have been formed endogenously on Mars. Finally, the quantum efficiencies of photodecomposition at wavelengths from 200 to 250 nm, determined for each of the studied molecules, range from 10−2 to 10−6 molecule photon−1 and apply for isolated molecules exposed at the surface of Mars. These kinetic parameters provide essential inputs for numerical modeling of the evolution of Mars’ current reservoir of organic molecules. Organic molecules adsorbed on martian minerals may have different kinetic parameters and lead to different endproducts. The present study paves the way for the interpretation of more complex simulation experiments where organics will be mixed with martian mineral analogs.

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