Comets and asteroids shower Mars with organics

By | Published: March 16, 2018 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
A new study suggests that impacts by comets and asteroids, which both contain organic compounds, are responsible for roughly 30 percent of the organic material found on the martian surface. This artist’s concept (from a proposed but not flown Mars Scout mission) shows the impact of a high-velocity probe similar to a large meteorite.
Arizona State University/Ron Miller
For decades, astronomers suspected that Mars might be teeming with organics, which are carbon-based molecules like proteins, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that the Mars Curiosity rover uncovered the first evidence showing these life-supporting compounds were not only present, but also likely scattered all over the Red Planet.

At the time, astronomers suspected that organics were hitchhiking to Mars almost exclusively aboard tiny, interplanetary dust particles (which are incredibly common and cause most meteors here on Earth). But now, just three short years later, new research suggests otherwise.

In a new study set for publication on July 15 in the journal Icarus, an international team of researchers found that about one-third of the organic material on Mars was delivered there by asteroid and comet strikes. To determine this, the researchers created a computer model of the solar system that included hundreds of thousands of asteroids and comets. Then they used Peregrine — a supercomputer at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands — to run multiple simulations.

After running the simulations for a few weeks, the researchers were surprised to find that comets and asteroids are likely responsible for about one-third of the 192 tons of carbon that plummets to Mars each year. More specifically, they found that asteroids deliver about 50 tons of the organic material per year (26 percent), while comets account for around 13 tons (7 percent).

These findings also fit in neatly with the recent discovery that organic molecules make up nearly half of Comet 67P, which was visited by the Rosetta spacecraft in 2014.

According to simulations, comets and asteroids shower Mars with roughly a third of its overall organics. The other two-thirds comes from interplanetary space dust.
Anastasia Kruchevska
Furthermore, unlike interplanetary dust infall, which distributes organics somewhat evenly over the entire martian surface, organics delivered by asteroids and comets were found to be concentrated within about 93 miles (150 kilometers) of impact craters. This is an important finding because it could affect the analysis of in-situ samples taken by current and future Mars rovers.

The new findings not only have implications for future Mars missions, but also for exoplanetary research. According to Kateryna Frantseva, a Ph.D. student at the University of Groningen and lead author of the study, in a press release, “Near other stars, there are also exo-asteroids and exo-comets that can shower the surfaces of exoplanets with carbon. If, on top of that, there is water, then you have the required ingredients for life.”

Though we are a long way off from scouring the surfaces of exoplanets for carbon, one of the main goals of the recently delayed James Webb Space Telescope will be to study the atmospheres of exoplanets. But, until then, the researchers plan to turn their focus to Mercury, where they hope to reveal how much water has been showered upon our solar system’s smallest, innermost planet.