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(STFC DTP) Investigating the organic record of early Mars

Project Description

Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034 and paired stones are unique martian meteorites that provide us with our first and only samples of the martian surface regolith (Agee et al. 2013; McCubbin et al. 2016). These samples contain a variety of magmatic, impact-related, and sedimentary clasts as old as ca. 4.4 billion years old that were consolidated sometime around 1.5 billion years ago (McCubbin et al. 2016). The NWA 7034 clan of meteorites thus provides us with a window into the geological evolution of Mars over several billion years. NWA 7034 contains macromolecular carbon (MMC) inclusions in mineral phases (Agee et al. 2013); preliminary observations of these inclusions suggest they might have a similar origin than abiogenic MMC observed in other basaltic martian meteorites (Steele et al. 2016). However the fact that NWA 7034 contains a record of martian (sub)surface conditions and components 4.4 billion years ago, at a time when Mars was likely a habitable world (e.g., Moser et al. 2019), warrants a thorough investigation of its organic material inventory to assess its origins.

This project will investigate the organic record of martian meteorites from the NWA 7034 family using a wide array of analytical facilities available in the School of Natural Sciences, including bulk analysis and techniques such as confocal and scanning electron microscopy, spectroscopy (FTIR, Raman), (pyr)-GC-MS, NMR, inorganic (LA-ICP-MS, NanoSIMS) mass spectrometry, and X-ray micro- and nanotomography. This project thus provides a great opportunity to receive training in a wide range of techniques aimed at developing a clearer understanding of the organic record of the early Mars epoch.

Such a combined approach is crucial to characterise as thoroughly as possible the range of compounds produced on Mars at that time, and investigate their likely origin. This also requires studying terrestrial analogues; by applying these techniques to sedimentary rocks known to record early terrestrial life (e.g., fossil-bearing horizons in the Torridonian Supergroup, UK and sediments from the Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa; Brasier et al. 2017; Homann 2019), we can identify key markers supporting biogenicity, and assess the preservation potential of organics that have undergone burial for prolonged periods of time.

Please contact for further information.

The project will suit able and enthusiastic students with a background in petrology and geochemistry applied to Earth and/or Planetary Sciences, and will provide excellent training and advanced knowledge appropriate for further academic research in geochemistry and planetary science. Students with a background in Physics and/or Chemistry who can demonstrate knowledge and interest in planetary research will also be considered.


Agee et al. (2013), Unique meteorite from Early Amazonian Mars: Water‐rich basaltic breccia Northwest Africa 7034, Science 339, 780-785.
Brasier et al. (2017) Evaluating evidence from the Torridonian Supergroup (Scotland, UK) for eukaryotic life on land in the Proterozoic, Geol. Soc. London Special Publications 448, 121-144.
Homann (2019) Earliest life on Earth: Evidence from the Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa, Earth-Sci. Rev. 196, 102888.
McCubbin et al. (2016) Geologic history of Martian regolith breccia Northwest Africa 7034: Evidence for hydrothermal activity and lithologic diversity in the Martian crust. JGR Planets 121, 2120-2149.
Moser et al. (2019) Decline of giant impacts on Mars by 4.48 billion years ago and an early opportunity for habitability. Nature Geoscience 12, 522-527.
Steele et al. (2016) The provenance, formation, and implications of reduced carbon phases in Martian meteorites. Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 51, 2203-2225.

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How good is research at The University of Manchester in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 42.13

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