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The formation history and early habitability of Mars - did life in our Solar System first occur on Mars?

Carlsbergfondets ”Semper Ardens” forskningsprojekter


Unravelling the origin and emergence of life in our Solar System is perhaps one of the most fundamental pursuits in natural sciences as it allows us to assess the potential for complex life to exist in other planetary systems in the Galaxy. Although the earliest record of life on Earth comes from ~3.8 billion years old sedimentary rocks from Greenland, little is known about the potential early habitability of other planets in the Solar System such as Mars. This project will assess the potential early habitability of Mars by probing the physico-chemical conditions that existed at the surface of the planet ~4.4 billion years ago. We will determine the early volatile inventory of the planet, including the presence of water and atmosphere, and search for signs of early biologic activity.


As a planetary embryo, Mars offers a unique opportunity to better constrain planet-formation processes, including the stabilization of a primordial crust. Indeed, unlike Earth, which has an active plate tectonic regime resulting in the continuous recycling of its surface, Mars lacks active plate tectonics. Thus, ancient crustal domains that date back to the earliest history of the planet can be readily preserved. A recent study from our group has suggested that Mars may have been fully formed within only 20 millions years after the birth of our Sun. Thus, conditions amiable to life may have existed on Mars much earlier than on Earth, allowing for the possibility that life in our Solar System first evolved on Mars.


The NWA 7034 martian meteorite, discovered in the Moroccan desert in 2011, contains very ancient minerals such as zircon that date back to ~4.4 billion years ago. We will provide a detailed account of the physico-chemical conditions that existed at the surface of Mars during its solidification by investigating the geochemistry of a large population of ancient zircons extracted from the NWA 7034 meteorite. These data will allow us to assess the epoch in the early history of the planet when conditions amiable to life may have existed, including the presence of a hydrosphere. Moreover, this new and substantive zircon archive will enable a systematic search for carbon-rich inclusions encapsulated in zircons, with the objective of identifying evidence for biologic activity on early Mars.


We are fully committed to the important missions of student education and public outreach. This Semper Ardens project will educate our next generation of scientists and the results will be communicated to the public through exhibits at the new Natural History Museum of Denmark.