Recent findings suggest that Mars may have been a clement environment for the emergence of life and may even have compared favorably to Earth in this regard. These findings have revived interest in the hypothesis that prebiotically important molecules or even nascent life may have formed on Mars and been transferred to Earth. UV light plays a key role in prebiotic chemistry. Characterizing the early martian surface UV environment is key to understanding how Mars compares to Earth as a venue for prebiotic chemistry.
Here, we present two-stream, multilayer calculations of the UV surface radiance on Mars at 3.9 Ga to constrain the surface UV environment as a function of atmospheric state. We explore a wide range of atmospheric pressures, temperatures, and compositions that correspond to the diversity of martian atmospheric states consistent with available constraints. We include the effects of clouds and dust. We calculate dose rates to quantify the effect of different atmospheric states on UV-sensitive prebiotic chemistry.
We find that, for normative clear-sky CO2-H2O atmospheres, the UV environment on young Mars is comparable to young Earth. This similarity is robust to moderate cloud cover; thick clouds (τcloud ≥ 100) are required to significantly affect the martian UV environment, because cloud absorption is degenerate with atmospheric CO2. On the other hand, absorption from SO2, H2S, and dust is nondegenerate with CO2, meaning that, if these constituents build up to significant levels, surface UV fluence can be suppressed. These absorbers have spectrally variable absorption, meaning that their presence affects prebiotic pathways in different ways. In particular, high SO2 environments may admit UV fluence that favors pathways conducive to abiogenesis over pathways unfavorable to it. However, better measurements of the spectral quantum yields of these pathways are required to evaluate this hypothesis definitively.