Researchers Develop a New Low Cost/Low Weight Method of Searching for Life on Mars

Study co-author I. Altshuler sampling permafrost terrain near the McGill Arctic research station, Canadian high Arctic. Image: Dr. Jacqueline Goordial

Researchers at Canada’s McGill University have shown for the first time how existing technology could be used to directly detect life on Mars and other planets. The team conducted tests in Canada’s high arctic, which is a close analog to Martian conditions. They showed how low-weight, low-cost, low-energy instruments could detect and sequence alien micro-organisms. They presented their results in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

Getting samples back to a lab to test is a time consuming process here on Earth. Add in the difficulty of returning samples from Mars, or from Ganymede or other worlds in our Solar System, and the search for life looks like a daunting task. But the search for life elsewhere in our Solar System is a major goal of today’s space science. The team at McGill wanted to show that, conceptually at least, samples could be tested, sequenced, and grown in-situ at Mars or other locations. And it looks like they’ve succeeded.

Recent and current missions to Mars have studied the suitability of Mars for life. But they don’t have the ability to look for life itself. The last time a Mars mission was designed to directly search for life was in the 1970’s, when NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 missions landed on the surface. No life was detected, but decades later people still debate the results of those missions.

The Viking 2 lander captured this image of itself on the Martian surface. The Viking Landers were the last missions to directly look for life on Mars. By NASA - NASA website; description,[1] high resolution image.[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17624
The Viking 2 lander captured this image of itself on the Martian surface. The Viking Landers were the last missions to directly look for life on Mars. By NASA – NASA website; description,[1] high resolution image.[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17624

But Mars is heating up, figuratively speaking, and the sophistication of missions to Mars keeps growing. With crewed missions to Mars a likely reality in the not-too-distant future, the team at McGill is looking ahead to develop tools to search for life there. And they focused on miniature, economical, low-energy technology. Much of the current technology is too large or demanding to be useful on missions to Mars, or to places like Enceladus or Europa, both future destinations in the Search for Life.

“To date, these instruments remain high mass, large in size, and have high energy requirements. Such instruments are entirely unsuited for missions to locations such as Europa or Enceladus for which lander packages are likely to be tightly constrained.”

The team of researchers from McGill, which includes Professor Lyle Whyte and Dr. Jacqueline Goordial, have developed what they are calling the ‘Life Detection Platform (LDP).’ The platform is modular, so that different instruments can be swapped out depending on mission requirements, or as better instruments are developed. As it stands, the Life Detection Platform can culture microorganisms from soil samples, assess microbial activity, and sequence DNA and RNA.

There are already instruments available that can do what the LDP can do, but they’re bulky and require more energy to operate. They aren’t suitable for missions to far-flung destinations like Enceladus or Europa, where sub-surface oceans might harbour life. As the authors say in their study, “To date, these instruments remain high mass, large in size, and have high energy requirements. Such instruments are entirely unsuited for missions to locations such as Europa or Enceladus for which lander packages are likely to be tightly constrained.”

A key part of the system is a miniaturized, portable DNA sequencer called the Oxford Nanopore MiniON. The team of researchers behind this study were able to show for the first time that the MiniON can examine samples in extreme and remote environments. They also showed that when combined with other instruments it can detect active microbial life. The researches succeeded in isolatinh microbial extremophiles, detecting microbial activity, and sequencing the DNA. Very impressive indeed.

This image shows the instruments tested in the Life Detection Platform. Image: J. Goordial et. al.
This image shows the instruments tested in the Life Detection Platform. Image: J. Goordial et. al.

These are early days for the Life Detection Platform. The system required hands-on operation in these tests. But it does show proof of concept, an important stage in any technological development. “Humans were required to carry out much of the experimentation in this study, while life detection missions on other planets will need to be robotic,” says Dr Goordial.

“Humans were required to carry out much of the experimentation in this study, while life detection missions on other planets will need to be robotic.” – Dr. J. Goordial

The system as it stands now is useful here on Earth. The same things that allow it to search for and sequence microorganisms on other worlds make it suitable for the same task here on Earth. “The types of analyses performed by our platform are typically carried out in the laboratory, after shipping samples back from the field,” says Dr. Goordial. This makes the system desirable for studying epidemics in remote areas, or in rapidly changing conditions where transporting samples to distant labs can be problematic.

These are very exciting times in the Search for Life in our Solar System. If, or when, we discover microbial life on Mars, Europa, Enceladus, or some other world, it will likely be done robotically, using equipment similar to the LDP.

No, NASA (Still) Has Not Discovered Proof of Alien Life

It seems that every few months or so, breathless claims surface on the internet that NASA is about to make an Earth-shattering announcement about aliens … or UFOs … or killer asteroids … or some other sensational assertion. Or better yet, NASA is hiding these ‘facts’ from us.

The latest claims says that “NASA Is About to Announce the Discovery of Intelligent Alien Life,” and this one might be receiving more attention and credence than usual because the group making the claim is Anonymous, the notorious hacking and activist group.

However, before we get into their claim, for the record, this morning NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, tweeted, “Contrary to some reports, there’s no pending announcement from NASA regarding extraterrestrial life.”

Anonymous’ video has been viewed over a million times, and the video’s description claims, “Latest anonymous message in 2017 just arrived with a huge announcement about the Intelligent Alien Life. NASA says aliens are coming!”

The video is a rambling (over 12 minutes), rather incoherent collection of statements and quotes from various people and NASA websites. The main quote that is attributed to the alien life claim is from Zurbuchen, speaking at a House Science Committee hearing in April. The quote, taken a little out of context, is, “Taking into account all of the different activities and missions that are specifically searching for evidence of alien life, we are on the verge of making one of the most profound, unprecedented, discoveries in history.”

If you watch the House Science Committee hearing, Zurbuchen is talking about upcoming missions like the Mars 2020 rover and the Europa Clipper mission — both of which will look for sign of life and conditions suitable for life – as well as current missions like the Kepler telescope that has discovered and confirmed thousands of planets around other stars. Of course, Zurbuchen is talking about these missions in the most exciting way possible to make sure Congress is excited about these missions, too. But he certainly does not say that NASA has found alien life, or that they have evidence they will be revealing soon. He tweeted about that this morning, too.

Another quote in the video is a very old one from former NASA astronaut Dr. Brian O’Leary, who passed away in 2011. He was a planetary scientist who ended up leaving NASA in 1968 and never flew in space. I met O’Leary in the 1990’s and can confirm the statement on the Wikipedia page about him that he “increasingly explored unorthodox ideas.”

The video goes on to talk about the well-known discoveries of the Kepler mission, saying “Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t know that planets existed beyond our solar system. Today we have confirmed the existence of over 3,400 exoplanets that orbit other suns, and we continue to make new discoveries.”

NASA’s Kepler space telescope was the first agency mission capable of detecting Earth-size planets. Credit: NASA/Wendy Stenzel

It also discusses other well-publicized discoveries such as finding the key ingredients for life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, but offers no sources of facts when the Guy Fawkes look-alike says, “There are many who claim that unofficially, mankind has already made contact with aliens and not just little micro-organisms floating around inside a massive alien ocean, but advanced space-faring civilizations.”

All the claims in the video that “aliens are on the way” are nothing but speculation and the quotes from NASA officials and scientists are all in the public domain, easily found online, so there is nothing being “revealed’ here. I’ve talked to scientists from all around the world, and if NASA or any other space agency had found evidence of alien life, they’d be shouting it from the rooftops, not hiding it.

Where Should We Look For Ancient Civilizations in the Solar System?

Image of the "Face of Mars" by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with the Viking 1 image inset (bottom right). Credit: NASA/JPL

The search for life in the Universe takes many paths. There’s SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which is searching for signals from a distant ancient civilization. There’s the exploration of our own Solar System, on Mars, or underneath the subsurface oceans of Europa and Enceladus, to see if life can be anywhere there’s liquid water and a source of energy. And upcoming space telescopes like James Webb will attempt to directly image the atmospheres of distant extrasolar planets, to see if they contain the distinct chemical signatures of life.

But according to Jason Wright, an astronomer at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, we could consider searching for evidence of ancient civilizations right here on Earth, or across the Solar System. Don’t get excited, though, so far “there is zero evidence for prior indigenous species in the Solar System.”

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard
Artist’s impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard
In a paper, recently submitted to the arXiv electronic preprint archive entitled Prior Indigenous Technological Species, Dr. Wright describes how we might go about searching for the technological artifacts left behind by ancient civilizations that have evolved in the Solar System. Perhaps on an ancient, cooler Venus, or on Mars in a time when it was wetter and had a thicker atmosphere. Those civilizations could have arisen millions or even billions of years ago, destroyed themselves or left the Solar System, and only ancient traces of their culture and technology would still be around.

If a civilization had reached a high level of technology, where did it go? Wright suggests a variety of catastrophes, like a swarm of comets, self destruction, or even a nearby supernova explosion that irradiated the whole Solar System with high energy gamma rays. Even without a specific event, a civilization might have simply just died out, or became permanently non-technological. Of course, these possibilities face our own human civilization. It’s hard to read the paper and not consider the fate of humanity. Will future aliens search for scraps to learn about us?

Where should we look? According to Wright, Earth is the obvious, most habitable place in the Solar System, and it’ll be the easiest to search. Humans have dramatically changed the landscape of Earth. Our open pit mines, for example, are a clear indication that an intelligent species dug out a specific mineral from the ground. These might be obvious for millions of years, but over the course of billions of years, plate tectonics will have recycled those regions, absorbing the evidence back into the ground. Radioactive isotopes from ancient nuclear reactors, or fossils of ancient beings will have about the same lifespan. Beyond a few hundred million years, the Earth itself would have completely obscured any evidence of a technological civilization.

Inhospitable surface of Venus. Credit: Magellan
Venus is inhospitable today, but it might not have always been the case. Billions of years in the past, when the Sun was cooler, it might have had a thinner atmosphere and milder temperatures. It’s worth searching. That said, it appears that Venus has gone through major geological resurfacing events, where the entire planet’s surface turned inside out. Venus could easily hide its secrets.

Scientists are accumulating more and more evidence that Mars was warmer and wetter in the past, with eras when liquid water could exist on the surface for long periods of time. And unlike Earth and Venus, it doesn’t have active plate tectonics. Landscapes on the surface have remained there for billions of years. Well, okay, they’ve been pounded by meteorites, but they’re still there.

What should we be looking for? One idea is technological structures: ancient mining facilities, factories, even cities. On Mars, these structures could get covered by dust or worn down by erosion, so it’s entirely possible our space-based observations could have missed them. Even structures on asteroids and the Moon get eroded by micrometeorites wearing them down. Over the course of millions years, an ancient factory would look very similar to a small rocky outcrop. The real evidence could be hidden underground, safely protected from the surface erosion. We need more rovers and orbiters with ground penetrating radar to see below the surface.

The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment placed on the Moon by the Apollo 14 astronauts. Credit: NASA
The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment placed on the Moon by the Apollo 14 astronauts. Credit: NASA
There could be free-floating objects in the Solar System, like ancient space stations. Of course, if they’ve been abandoned long ago, they wouldn’t be functional, and that same micrometeorite erosion would have worn them down over the vast timescales. Furthermore, their orbits might not be stable, and could eventually crash into another world, or get kicked out of the Solar System entirely. Space stations out in the Kuiper Belt would be subject to less erosion, and better preserved over vast timescales. We need better telescopes and deeper surveys to answer this question.

The bottom line is that Dr. Wright doesn’t conclude there’s any evidence for ancient civilizations in the Solar System so far. But the reality is that we’ve only just begun to look. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which contains the most powerful telescope to ever travel away from the Earth has only mapped a few percent of the Martian surface at its highest resolution. Astronomers have only mapped a tiny fraction of the asteroids and comets zipping around the Solar System. And we’ve only had single glimpses at places in the outer Solar System, like Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

There’s so much more searching that needs to be done. But while we’re at it, we should keep an eye out for ancient civilizations. If we did find an old factory, space station, or even the dumping ground of a precursor species, it would be a boon to our knowledge.

And might just give us a warning; advanced knowledge of what the future holds for our own civilization.

Original Source: Prior Indigenous Technological Species

How Will NASA Find Life On Other Worlds?

Is Earth in the range of normal when it comes to habitable planets? Or is it an outlier, with both large land masses, and large oceans? Image: Reto Stöckli, Nazmi El Saleous, and Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, NASA GSFC

For a long time, the idea of finding life on other worlds was just a science fiction dream. But in our modern times, the search for life is rapidly becoming a practical endeavour. Now, some minds at NASA are looking ahead to the search for life on other worlds, and figuring out how to search more effectively and efficiently. Their approach is centered around two things: nano-satellites and microfluidics.

Life is obvious on Earth. But it’s a different story for the other worlds in our Solar System. Mars is our main target right now, with the work that MSL Curiosity is doing. But Curiosity is investigating Mars to find out if conditions on that planet were ever favorable for life. A more exciting possibility is finding extant life on another world: that is, life that exists right now.

MSL Curiosity is busy investigating the surface of Mars, to see if that planet could have harbored life. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech
MSL Curiosity is busy investigating the surface of Mars, to see if that planet could have harbored life. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

At the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop, experts in Planetary Science and related disciplines gathered to present ideas about the next 50 years of exploration in the Solar System. A team led by Richard Quinn at the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) presented their ideas on the search for extant life in the next few decades.

Their work is based on the decadal survey “Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022.” That source confirms what most of us are already aware of: that our search for life should be focussed on Mars and the so-called “Ocean Worlds” of our Solar System like Enceladus and Europa. The question is, what will that search look like?

The North Polar Region of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Could there be an ocean world full of life under its frozen surface? Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Quinn and his team outlined two technologies that we could center our search around.

Nanosatellites

A nanosatellite is classified as something with a mass between 1-10 kg. They offer several advantages over larger designs.

Firstly, their small mass keeps the cost of launching them very low. In many cases, nanosatellites can be piggy-backed onto the launch of a larger payload, just to use up any excess capacity. Nanosatellites can be made cheaply, and multiples of them can be designed and built the same. This would allow a fleet of nanosatellites to be sent to the same destination.

Most of the discussion around the search for life centers around large craft or landers that land in one location, and have limited mobility. The Mars rovers are doing great work, but they can only investigate very specific locations. In a way, this creates kind of a sampling error. It’s difficult to generalize about the conditions for life on other worlds when we’ve only sampled a small handful of locations.

In 2010, NASA successfully deployed the nanosatellite NANO-Sail D from a larger, microsatellite. Image: NASA

On Earth, life is everywhere. But Earth is also the home to extremophiles, organisms that exist only in extreme, hard-to-reach locations. Think of thermal vents on the ocean floor, or deep dark caves. If that is the kind of life that exists on the target worlds in our Solar System, then there’s a strong possibility that we’ll need to sample many locations before we find them. That is something that is beyond the capabilities of our rovers. Nanosatellites could be part of the solution. A fleet of them investigating a world like Enceladus or Europa could speed up our search for extant life.

NASA has designed and built nanosatellites to perform a variety of tasks, like performing biology experiments, and testing advanced propulsion and communications technologies. In 2010 they successfully deployed a nanosatellite from a larger, microsatellite. If you expand on that idea, you can see how a small fleet of nanosatellites could be deployed at another world, after arriving there on another larger craft.

Microfluidics

Microfluidics deals with systems that manipulate very small amounts of fluid, usually on the sub-millimeter scale. The idea is to build microchips which handle very small sample sizes, and test them in-situ. NASA has done work with microfluidics to try to develop ways of monitoring astronauts’ health on long space voyages, where there is no access to a lab. Microfluidic chips can be manufactured which have only one or two functions, and produce only one or two results.

In terms of the search for extant life in our Solar System, microfluidics is a natural fit with nanosatellites. Replace the medical diagnostic capabilities of a microfluidic chip with a biomarker diagnostic, and you have a tiny device that can be mounted on a tiny satellite. Since functioning microfluidic chips can be as small as microprocessors, multiples of them could be mounted.

” Technical constraints will inevitably limit robotic missions that search for evidence of life to a few selected experiments.” – Richard.C.Quinn, et. al.

When combined with nanosatellites, microfluidics offers the possibility of the same few tests for life being repeated over and over in multiple locations. This is obviously very attractive when it comes to the search for life. The team behind the idea stresses that their approach would involve the search for simple building blocks, the complex biomolecules involved in basic biochemistry, and also the structures that cellular life requires in order to exist. Performing these tests in multiple locations would be a boon in the search.

Some of the technologies for the microfluidic search for life have already been developed. The team points out that several of them have already had successful demonstrations in micro-gravity missions like the GeneSat, the PharmaSat, and the SporeSat.

“The combination of microfluidic systems with chemical and biochemical sensors and sensor arrays offer some of the most promising approaches for extant life detection using small-payload platforms.” – Richard.C.Quinn, et. al.

Putting It All Together

We’re a ways away from a mission to Europa or Enceladus. But this paper was about the future vision of the search for extant life. It’s never too soon to start thinking about that.

There are some obvious obstacles to using nanosatellites to search for life on Enceladus or Europa. Those worlds are frozen, and it’s the oceans under those thick ice caps that we need to investigate. Somehow, our tiny nanosatellites would need to get through that ice.

Also, the nanosatellites we have now are just that: satellites. They are designed to be in orbit around a body. How could they be transformed into tiny, ocean-going submersible explorers?
There’s no doubt that somebody, somewhere at NASA, is already thinking about that.

The over-arching vision of a fleet of small craft, each with the ability to repeat basic experiments searching for life in multiple locations, is a sound one. As for how it actually turns out, we’ll have to wait and see.

What the Oldest Fossil on Earth Means for Finding Life on Mars

Scientists have found evidence that life existed on Earth much earlier than previously thought and they say this discovery has implications for life springing up on other planets, particularly Mars.

Fossils of microscopic bacteria were discovered in Quebec, Canada in the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt, a formation which contains some of the oldest sedimentary rocks in the world. Scientists estimate the fossils are at least 3.7 billion years old, and could be as old as 4.28 billion years. This is hundreds of millions of years older than previously found specimens.

“The most exciting thing about this discovery is that we know life managed to get a grip and start on Earth at such an early time in Earth’s evolution, which gives us exciting questions as to whether we are alone in the solar system or in the universe,” said PhD student Matthew Dodd from University College London (UCL), who is the first author on a new paper about the finding in the journal Nature. “If life happened so quickly on Earth then could we expect it to be a simple process and start on other planets, or was Earth really just a special case?”

Hematite tubes from the hydrothermal vent deposits that represent the oldest microfossils and evidence for life on Earth. The remains are at least 3.7 billion years old. Credit: Matthew Dodd/UCL

The tiny fossils are the remains of microorganisms that are smaller than the width of a human hair. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks are thought to have formed in an iron-rich deep-sea hydrothermal vent system that provided a habitat for Earth’s first life forms. These rocks are mostly composed of silica and hematite.

“Our discovery supports the idea that life emerged from hot, seafloor vents shortly after planet Earth formed,” Dodd said in a press release. “This speedy appearance of life on Earth fits with other evidence of recently discovered 3,700 million year old sedimentary mounds that were shaped by microorganisms.”

Prior to this discovery, the oldest microfossils reported were found in Western Australia and were dated at 3.4 billion years old, leading scientists to speculate that life probably started around 3.7 billion years ago. But the new finding suggests that life existed as early as 4.5 billion years ago, just 100 million years after Earth formed.

“The microfossils we discovered are about 300 million years older than the previously thought oldest microfossils,” said Dr. Dominic Papineau, a professor of geochemistry and astrobiology at UCL, “so they are within a few hundred million years from within the accretion of the solar system and the planet Earth and the Sun and the Moon and so on.”

The Blueberries of Mars are actually concretions of iron rich minerals from water – ground or standing pools – created over thousands of years during periodic epochs of wet climates on Mars. (Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Cornell)

Papineau said the structures in the rocks that contained the fossils were spheroids, and since they are made of hematite, they are reminiscent of the discovery in 2004 by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity of beds of rounded hematite concretions, that MER scientists called “blueberries.” These rounded concretions formed on Earth when significant volumes of groundwater flowed through permeable rock, and chemical reactions triggered minerals to precipitate and start forming a layered, spherical ball.

The concretions may bear on the search for evidence of past life on Mars because bacteria on Earth can make concretions form more quickly, according to previous research.

“The origin of this structure is not fully understood even on Earth where we find them,” Papineau said. “We don’t know really how organic matter can potentially be involved in making these structures.”

Both the MER rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, as well as the Curiosity rover have all found evidence of past water on Mars. In addition, Curiosity has identified traces of elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and more — the basic building blocks of life. It also found sulfur compounds in different chemical forms, a possible energy source for microbes. If Mars really was warmer and wetter in the past, as the evidence seems to point, Mars would have been the perfect spot for living organisms.

While the finding of ancient fossils on Earth doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, in conjunction with the Curiosity rover finding of the raw ingredients for life, it is enticing to know that the environment on early Mars was likely very similar to early Earth, where life did spring up.

You can see details and hear the researchers talk about their findings in the video below:

Source: EurekAlert

Some Earth Life is Ready to Live on Mars, Right Now

For some time, scientists have suspected that life may have existed on Mars in the deep past. Owing to the presence of a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on its surface, it is entirely possible that the simplest of organisms might have begun to evolve there. And for those looking to make Mars a home for humanity someday, it is hoped that these conditions (i.e favorable to life) could be recreated again someday.

But as it turns out, there are some terrestrial organisms that could survive on Mars as it is today. According to a recent study by a team of researchers from the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences (ACSPS) at the University of Arkansas, four species of methanogenic microorganisms have shown that they could withstand one of the most severe conditions on Mars, which is its low-pressure atmosphere.

The study, titled “Low Pressure Tolerance by Methanogens in an Aqueous Environment: Implications for Subsurface Life on Mars,” was recently published in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. According to the study, the team tested the survivability of four different types of methanogens to see how they would survive in an environment analogous to the subsurface of Mars.

Methanogenic organisms that were found in samples of deep volcanic rocks along the Columbia River and in Idaho Falls. Credit: NASA

To put it simply, Methanogens are ancient group of organisms that are classified as archaea, a species of microorganism that do not require oxygen and can therefore survive in what we consider to be “extreme environments”. On Earth, methanogens are common in wetlands, ocean environments, and even in the digestive tracts of animals, where they consume hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce methane as a metabolic byproduct.

And as several NASA missions have shown, methane has also been found in the atmosphere of Mars. While the source of this methane has not yet been determined, it has been argued that it could be produced by methanogens living beneath the surface. As Rebecca Mickol, an astrobiologist at the ACSPS and the lead author of the study, explained:

“One of the exciting moments for me was the detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere. On Earth, most methane is produced biologically by past or present organisms. The same could possibly be true for Mars. Of course, there are a lot of possible alternatives to the methane on Mars and it is still considered controversial. But that just adds to the excitement.”

As part of the ongoing effort to understand the Martian environment, scientists have spent the past 20 years studying if four specific strains of methanogen – Methanothermobacter wolfeii, Methanosarcina barkeri, Methanobacterium formicicum, Methanococcus maripaludis – can survive on Mars. While it is clear that they could endure the low-oxygen and radiation (if underground), there is still the matter of the extremely low air-pressure.

Graduate students Rebecca Mickol and Navita Sinha prepare to load methanogens into the Pegasus Chamber housed in W.M. Keck Laboratory. Credit: University of Arkansas

With help from the NASA Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology Program (part of NASA’s Astrobiology Program), which issued them a three-year grant back in 2012, Mickol and her team took a new approach to testing these methanogens. This included placing them in a series of test tubes and adding dirt and fluids to simulate underground aquifers. They then fed the samples hydrogen as a fuel source and deprived them of oxygen.

The next step was subjecting the microorganisms to pressure conditions analogues to Mars to see how they might hold up. For this, they relied on the Pegasus Chamber, an instrument operated by the ACSPS in their W.M. Keck Laboratory for Planetary Simulations. What they found was that the methanogens all survived exposure to pressures of 6 to 143 millibars for periods of between 3 and 21 days.

This study shows that certain species of microorganisms are not dependent on a the presence of a dense atmosphere for their survival. It also shows that these particular species of methanogens could withstand periodic contact with the Martian atmosphere. This all bodes well for the theories that Martian methane is being produced organically – possibly in subsurface, wet environments.

This is especially good news in light of evidence provided by NASA’s HiRISE instrument concerning Mars’ recurring slope lineae, which pointed towards a possible connection between liquid water columns on the surface and deeper levels in the subsurface. If this should prove to be the case, then organisms being transported in the water column would be able to withstand the changing pressures during transport.

The possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere, ranging from subsurface microbes and weathering of rock and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

The next step, according to Mickol is to see how these organisms can stand up to temperature. “Mars is very, very cold,” she said, “often getting down to -100ºC (-212ºF) at night, and sometimes, on the warmest day of the year, at noon, the temperature can rise above freezing. We’d run our experiments just above freezing, but the cold temperature would limit evaporation of the liquid media and it would create a more Mars-like environment.”

Scientists have suspected for some time that life may still be found on Mars, hiding in recesses and holes that we have yet to peek into. Research that confirms that it can indeed exist under Mars’ present (and severe) conditions is most helpful, in that it allows us to narrow down that search considerably.

In the coming years, and with the deployment of additional Mars missions – like NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander, which is scheduled for launch in May of next year – we will be able to probe deeper into the Red Planet. And with sample return missions on the horizon – like the Mars 2020 rover – we may at last find some direct evidence of life on Mars!

Further Reading: Astrobiology Magazine, Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

Confirmed: We Really are ‘Star Stuff’

Scientist Carl Sagan said many times that “we are star stuff,” from the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, and the iron in our blood.

It is well known that most of the essential elements of life are truly made in the stars. Called the “CHNOPS elements” – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur – these are the building blocks of all life on Earth. Astronomers have now measured of all of the CHNOPS elements in 150,000 stars across the Milky Way, the first time such a large number of stars have been analyzed for these elements.

“For the first time, we can now study the distribution of elements across our Galaxy,” says Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University. “The elements we measure include the atoms that make up 97% of the mass of the human body.”

Astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey made their observations with the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph on the 2.5m Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. This instrument looks in the near-infrared to reveal signatures of different elements in the atmospheres of stars.

Quote from Carl Sage. Credit: Pinterest

While the observations were used to create a new catalog that is helping astronomers gain a new understanding of the history and structure of our galaxy, the findings also “demonstrates a clear human connection to the skies,” said the team.

While humans are 65% oxygen by mass, oxygen makes up less than 1% of the mass of all of elements in space. Stars are mostly hydrogen, but small amounts of heavier elements such as oxygen can be detected in the spectra of stars. With these new results, APOGEE has found more of these heavier elements in the inner part of the galaxy. Stars in the inner galaxy are also older, so this means more of the elements of life were synthesized earlier in the inner parts of the galaxy than in the outer parts.

So what does that mean for those of us out on the outer edges of one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, about 25,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy?

“I think it’s hard to say what the specific implications are for when life could arise,” said team member Jon Holtzman, also from New Mexico State, in an email to Universe Today. “We measure typical abundance of CHNOPS elements at different locations, but it’s not so easy to determine at any given location the time history of the CHNOPS abundances, because it’s hard to measure ages of stars. On top of that, we don’t know what the minimum amount of CHNOPS would need to be for life to arise, especially since we don’t really know how that happens in any detail!”

Holtzman added it is likely that, if there is a minimum required abundance, that minimum was probably reached earlier in the inner parts of the Galaxy than where we are.

The team also said that while it’s fun to speculate how the composition of the inner Milky Way Galaxy might impact how life might arise, the SDSS scientists are much better at understanding the formation of stars in our Galaxy.

“These data will be useful to make progress on understanding Galactic evolution,” said team member Jon Bird of Vanderbilt University, “as more and more detailed simulations of the formation of our galaxy are being made, requiring more complex data for comparison.”

Sloan Foundation 2.5m Telescope at Apache Point Observatory. Credit: SDSS.

“It’s a great human interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way,” said Jennifer Johnson of The Ohio State University. “This allows us to place constraints on when and where in our galaxy life had the required elements to evolve, a sort ‘temporal Galactic habitable zone’”.

The catalog is available at the SDSS website, so take a look for yourself at the chemical abundances in our portion of the galaxy.

Source: SDSS

Mars Has Features That Look Very Similar To Life Bearing Hot Springs On Earth

A type of rock formation found on Mars may be some of the best evidence yet for life on that planet, according to a new study at Nature.com. The formations in question are in the Gusev Crater. When Spirit examined the spectra of the formations, scientists found that they closely match those of formations at El Tatio in Northern Chile.

The significance of that match? The El Tatio formations were produced by a combination of living and non-living processes.

The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs
The Gusev Crater geo-located on a map of Mars. Image: Wikimedia Labs

The Gusev Crater is a large crater that formed 3 to 4 billion years ago. It’s an old crater lake bed, with sediments up to 3,000 feet thick. Gusev also has exposed rock formations which show evidence of layering. A system of water channels called Ma’adim Vallis flows into Gusev, which could account for the deep sediments.

When it comes to evidence for the existence of life on Mars, and on early Earth, researchers often focus on hydrothermal spring deposits. These deposits can capture and preserve the biosignatures of early life. You can’t find evidence of ancient life just anywhere because geologic processes erase it. This is why El Tatio has received so much attention.

It’s also why formations at Gusev have received attention. They appear to have a hydrothermal origin as well. Their relation to the rocks around them support their hydrothermal origin.

El Tatio in Chile is a hard-to-find combination of extremely high UV, low rainfall, high annual evaporation rate, and high elevation. This makes it an excellent analog for Mars.

The Mars-like conditions at El Tatio make it rather unique on Earth, and that uniqueness is reflected in the rock deposits and structures that it produces. The most unique ones may be the biomediated silica structures that resemble the structures in Gusev. This resemblance suggest that they have the same causes: hydrothermal vents and biofilms.

Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer
Silica structures at the Gusev Crater (left) closely resemble the silica structures at El Tatio (right.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer

Biomediated Structures?

The rock structures at El Tatio are typically covered with very shallow water that supports bio-films and mats comprised of different diatoms and cyanobacteria. The size and shape of the structures varies, probably according to the variable depth, flow velocity, and flow direction of the water. The same variations are present at Gusev on Mars. This begs the question, “Could the structures at Gusev also have a biological cause?”

Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.
Microscopic images of structures at El Tatio. B, in the upper right, shows the biofilm community partly responsible for the formation of the structures. The surface biofilm community includes silica-encrusted microbial filaments and sheaths, and spindle-shaped diatoms (white arrows.) Image: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer.

Luckily, we have a rover on Mars that can probe the Gusev formations more deeply. Spirit used its Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES) to obtain spectra of the Gusev formations. These spectra confirmed the similarity to the terrestrial formations at El Tatio.

Spirit was helpful in other ways. The rover has one inoperable wheel, which drags across the Martian surface, disrupting and overturning rock structures. Spirit was intentionally driven across the Gusev formations, in order to overturn and expose fragments. Then, Spirit’s Microscopic Imager was trained on those fragments.

(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit's busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
(A) shows the wheel marks left by Spirit. The darker ones on the right are from the inoperable wheel. (B) is a closeup of the box in (A). (C) shows some of the rover tracks and features in Gusev. (D) shows two whitish rocks, intentionally overturned by Spirit’s busted wheel. Image: NASA/JPL/Spirit PanCam.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.
MM scale close-up images of the Martian rocks, on the left, show many similarities with the El Tatio rocks, right. Images: Steven W. Ruff, Jack D. Farmer, NASA/JPL.

Unfortunately, Spirit lacks the instrumentation to look deeply into the internal microscale features of the Martian rocks. If Spirit could do that, we would be much more certain that the Martian rocks were partly biogenic in origin. All of the surrounding factors suggest that they do, but that’s not enough to come to that conclusion.

This study presents more compelling evidence that there was indeed life on Mars at some point. But it’s not conclusive.

The Search Is On For Alien Signals Around Tabby’s Star


There’s a remote chance that inexplicable light variations in a star in the Northern Cross may be caused by the works of an alien civilization.

1,480 light years from Earth twinkles one of the greatest mysteries of recent times.  There in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, you’ll find a dim, ordinary-looking point of light with an innocent sounding name — Tabby’s Star.  Named for Louisiana State University astronomer  Tabetha Boyajian, who was the lead author on a paper about its behavior, this star has so confounded astronomers with its unpredictable ups and downs in its brightness, they’ve gone to war on the object, drilling down on it with everything from the Hubble to the monster 393.7-inch (10-meter) Keck Telescope in Hawaii. Continue reading “The Search Is On For Alien Signals Around Tabby’s Star”

We Land on Mars in Just 2 days!


Watch how Schiaparelli will land on Mars. Touchdown will occur at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT) Wednesday Oct. 19.

Cross your fingers for good weather on the Red Planet on October 19. That’s the day the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander pops open its parachute, fires nine, liquid-fueled thrusters and descends to the surface of Mars. Assuming fair weather, the lander should settle down safely on the wide-open plains of Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator northwest of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The region is rich in hematite, an iron-rich mineral associated with hot springs here on Earth.

On 19 October 2016, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module, known as Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in a region known as Meridiani Planum. The landing sites of the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there are indicated on this map. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars, based on data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument, on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.
On Wednesday, October 19, the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, will land on Mars in Meridiani Planum not far from the Opportunity rover. The map shows the seven rovers and landers that have reached the surface of Mars and successfully operated there. The background image is a shaded relief map of Mars created using data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

The 8-foot-wide probe will be released three days earlier from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and coast toward Mars before entering its atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 km/hr). During the 6-minute-long descent, Schiaparelli will decelerate gradually using the atmosphere to brake its speed, a technique called aerobraking. Not only is Meridiani Planum flat, it’s low, which means the atmosphere is thick enough to allow Schiaparelli’s heat shield to reduce its speed sufficiently so the chute can be safely deployed. The final firing of its thrusters will ensure a soft and controlled landing.

Artist's impression depicting the separation of the ExoMars 2016 entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, named Schiaparelli, from the Trace Gas Orbiter, and heading for Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression showing Schiaparelli separating from the Trace Gas Orbiter and heading for Mars. The lander is named for late 19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who created a detailed telescopic map of Mars. The orbiter will sniff out potentially biological gases such as methane in Mars’ atmosphere and track its sources and seasonal variations. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The lander is one-half of the ExoMars 2016 mission, a joint venture between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will fire its thrusters to place itself in orbit about the Red Planet the same day Schiparelli lands. Its job is to inventory the atmosphere in search of organic molecules, methane in particular. Plumes of methane, which may be biological or geological (or both) in origin, have recently been detected at several locations on Mars including Syrtis Major, the planet’s most prominent dark marking. The orbiter will hopefully pinpoint the source(s) as well as study seasonal changes in locations and concentrations.

This image, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. It shows a flat plain, part of the Elysium Planitia, that is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA's Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
This image, taken by ESA’s Express spacecraft, shows what appears to be a dust-covered frozen sea near the Martian equator. Located in Elysium Planitia, the flat plain is covered with irregular blocky shapes. They look just like the rafts of fragmented sea ice that lie off the coast of Antarctica on Earth. Raised levels of methane were detected here by ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Methane (CH4) has long been associated with life here on Earth. More than 90% of the colorless, odorless gas is produced by living organisms, primarily bacteria. Sunlight breaks methane down into other gases over a span of about 300 years. Because the gas relatively short-lived, seeing it on Mars implies an active, current source. There may be several:

  • Long-extinct bacteria that released methane that became trapped in ice or minerals in the upper crust. Changing temperature and pressure could stress the ice and release that ancient gas into today’s atmosphere.
  • Bacteria that are actively producing methane to this day.
  • Abiological sources. Iron can combine with oxygen in terrestrial hot springs and volcanoes to create methane. This gas can also become trapped in solid forms of water or ‘cages’ called clathrate hydrates that can preserve it for a long time. Olivine, a common mineral on Earth and Mars, can react with water under the right conditions to form another mineral called serpentine. When altered by heat, water and pressure, such in environments such as hydrothermal springs, serpentine can produce methane.

Will it turn out to be burping bacteria or mineral processes? Let’s hope TGO can point the way.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan
This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it: microbes (left) under the surface that release the gas into the atmosphere, weathering of rock (right) and stored methane ice called a clathrate. Ultraviolet light can work on surface materials to produce methane as well as break it apart into other molecules (formaldehyde and methanol) to produce carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

The Trace Gas Orbiter will also use the Martian atmosphere to slow its speed and trim its orbital loop into a 248-mile-high (400 km) circle suitable for science observations. But don’t expect much in the way of scientific results right away; aerobraking maneuvers will take about a year, so TGO’s job of teasing out atmospheric ingredients won’t begin until December 2017. The study runs for 5 years.

The orbiter will also examine Martian water vapor, nitrogen oxides and other organics with far greater accuracy than any previous probe as well as monitor seasonal changes in the atmosphere’s composition and temperature. And get this — its instruments can map subsurface hydrogen, a key ingredient in both water and methane, down to a depth of a meter (39.4 inches) with greater resolution compared to previous studies. Who knows? We may discover hidden ice deposits or methane sinks that could influence where future rovers will land. Additional missions to Mars are already on the docket, including ExoMars 2020. More about that in a minute.

Schiaparelli, the
This artist’s view shows Schiaparelli, the entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, using its thrusters to make a soft landing on Mars on October 19 at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

While TGO’s mission will require years, the lander is expected to survive for only four Martian days (called ‘sols’) by using the excess energy capacity of its batteries. A set of scientific sensors will measure wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure and electric fields on the surface. A descent camera will take pictures of the landing site on the way down; we’ll should see those photos the very next day. Data and imagery from the lander will be transmitted to ESA’s Mars Express and a NASA Relay Orbiter, then relayed to Earth.


This animation shows the paths of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander on Oct. 19 when they arrive at Mars.

If you’re wondering why the lander’s mission is so brief, it’s because Schiaparelli is essentially a test vehicle. Its primary purpose is to test technologies for landing on Mars including the special materials used for protection against the heat of entry, a parachute system, a Doppler radar device for measuring altitude and liquid-fueled braking thrusters.

Martian dust storms can be cause for concern during any landing attempt. Since it’s now autumn in the planet’s northern hemisphere, a time when storms are common, there’s been some finger-nail biting of late. The good news is that storms of recent weeks have calmed and Mars has entered a welcome quiet spell.

To watch events unfold in real time, check out ESA’s live stream channel, Facebook page and Twitter updates. The announcement of the separation of the lander from the orbiter will be made around 11 a.m. Eastern Time (15:00 GMT) Sunday October 16.  Live coverage of the Trace Gas Orbiter arrival and Schiaparelli landing on Mars runs from 9-11:15 a.m. Eastern (13:00-15:15 GMT) on Wednesday October 19. Photos taken by Schiaparelli’s descent camera will be available starting at 4 a.m. Eastern (8:00 GMT) on October 20. More details here. We’ll also keep you updated on Universe Today.

The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA
The ExoMars 2016 mission will pave the way for a rover mission to the Red Planet in 2020. Credit: ESA

Everything we learn during the current mission will be applied to planning and executing the next —  ExoMars 2020, slated to launch in 2020. That venture will send a rover to the surface to search and chemically test for signs of life, present or past.  It will collect samples with a drill at various depths and analyze the fines for bio-molecules. Getting down deep is important because the planet’s thin atmosphere lets through harsh UV light from the sun, sterilizing the surface.

Are you ready for adventure? See you on Mars (vicariously)!