Evidence for indigenous nitrogen in sedimentary and aeolian deposits from the Curiosity rover investigations at Gale crater, Mars

Jennifer C. Stern, Brad Sutter, Caroline Freissinet, Rafael Navarro-González, Christopher P. McKay, P. Douglas Archer Jr, Arnaud Buch, Anna E. Brunner, Patrice Coll, Jennifer L. Eigenbrode, Alberto G. Fairen, Heather B. Franz, Daniel P. Glavin, Srishti Kashyap, Amy C. McAdam, Douglas W. Ming, Andrew Steele, Cyril Szopa, James J. Wray, F. Javier Martín-TorresMaria-Paz Zorzano, Pamela G. Conrad, Paul R. Mahaffy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

159 Citations (Scopus)


The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) investigation on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover has detected oxidized nitrogen-bearing compounds during pyrolysis of scooped aeolian sediments and drilled sedimentary deposits within Gale crater. Total N concentrations ranged from 20 to 250 nmol N per sample. After subtraction of known N sources in SAM, our results support the equivalent of 110-300 ppm of nitrate in the Rocknest (RN) aeolian samples, and 70-260 and 330-1,100 ppm nitrate in John Klein (JK) and Cumberland (CB) mudstone deposits, respectively. Discovery of indigenous martian nitrogen in Mars surface materials has important implications for habitability and, specifically, for the potential evolution of a nitrogen cycle at some point in martian history. The detection of nitrate in both wind-drifted fines (RN) and in mudstone (JK, CB) is likely a result of N2 fixation to nitrate generated by thermal shock from impact or volcanic plume lightning on ancient Mars. Fixed nitrogen could have facilitated the development of a primitive nitrogen cycle on the surface of ancient Mars, potentially providing a biochemically accessible source of nitrogen.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4245-4250
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number14
Early online date23 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2015

Bibliographical note

We are grateful for support from the entire Sample Analysis at Mars and Mars Science Laboratory operations, engineering, and scientific teams. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Mars Exploration Program and Goddard Space Flight Center provided support for the development and operation of SAM. SAM-GC was supported by funds from the French Space Agency (Centre National d’Études Spatiales). Data from these SAM experiments are archived in the Planetary Data System


  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Rymd- och flygteknik


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