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Organic Molecules in Martian Mud: NASA Lecture with Astrobiologist Jennifer Eigenbrode on September 12

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This mosaic, taken by the Mars Curiosity rover, looks uphill at Mount Sharp. The mosaic was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

Jennifer Eigenbrode’s job at NASA Goddard in her words “is to explore the ‘organic biogeochemistry’ of other bodies in our solar system, such as Mars or ice-covered ocean worlds, such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus.” She looks at organic molecules in rocks, ice and sediments and wants to figure out where they came from and what happened to them over time. She asks the questions: “Are they from life? Were they formed by geological processes in rocks? Are they from meteorites or comets?” Eigenbrode’s background in many disciplines—geology, biology, and chemistry, with a Master’s in geological sciences and a Ph.D. in geosciences — gives her the ability to think across disciplines and see how oceans, rocks, atmosphere and life work together as a system. She works with teams of scientists and engineers at NASA who focus on the big question, “Is extraterrestrial life in the universe possible?” Although there are universal traits captured in molecules, if we discover life beyond Earth, will it be different and unfamiliar?

Erosion of the surface reveals several shades of light toned layers, likely sedimentary deposits, as shown in this image taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

The Mars Curiosity mission has determined that ancient Mars was significantly wetter and warmer and was an entirely habitable place for microbial life. All the ingredients needed for life as we know it – the proper chemicals, a consistent source of energy, and water that was likely present and stable on the surface for millions of years – were clearly present. What we don’t know is if microbial life then began, and if so, did it evolve? Last year, NASA’s Scott Gruzewich presented a lecture at the Library, now a webcast: “Swimming in Martian Lakes: Curiosity at Gale Crater.” He discussed the five-year effort to explore the remnants of this lake with the rover.

The September 12 lecture, ‘A Mud Matter: The Recent Discovery of Organic Matter Preserved in 3-billion-year-old Mudstones on Mars,’ will be held in the James Madison Building’s third floor Mary Pickford Theater from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. There will be time included for questions and answers at the end of the presentation.

The talk will take us back to Gale Crater where the Curiosity rover found organic carbon molecules, some of the building blocks of life, in mudstones from a 3-billion-year-old Martian lakebed. Eigenbrode is a scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission and studies the rocks in the crater through the imagers and instruments on the rover. She specifically works with the Science Analysis of Mars (SAM) instrument to look for organic molecules and will discuss the discovery, how it might have been preserved, and what the source might be.

For inquiries about this program, contact Stephanie Marcus in the Science, Technology & Business Division at 202-707-1192 or [email protected]. Individuals requiring accommodations for this event are requested to submit a request at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

Comments (2)

  1. Is there a webcast available, or will a recorded version be available at a later date?

    • We are so glad you asked. This program will be recorded and made available on the Library’s website and Topics in Science Youtube channel in the coming weeks. The Library offers a wealth of recorded programs, so to make it easier to find the Science programs on our website we compiled a list of our division’s recorded programs here in this guide

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