Evidence of water and a warmer, wetter climate abound on Mars, but did life ever put its stamp on the Red Planet? Rocks may hold the secret. Knobby protuberances of rock discovered by the Spirit Rover in 2008 near the rock outcrop Home Plate in Gusev Crater caught the attention of scientists back on Earth. They look like cauliflower or coral, but were these strange Martian rocks sculpted by microbes, wind or some other process?
When analyzed by Spirit’s mini-TES (Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer), they proved to be made of nearly pure silica (SiO2), a mineral that forms in hot, volcanic environments. Rainwater and snow seep into cracks in the ground and come in contact with rocks heated by magma from below. Heated to hundreds of degrees, the water becomes buoyant and rises back toward the surface, dissolving silica and other minerals along the way before depositing them around a vent or fumarole. Here on Earth, silica precipitated from water leaves a pale border around many Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs.
Both at Yellowstone, the Taupo Volcanic Zonein New Zealand and in Iceland, heat-loving bacteria are intimately involved in creating curious bulbous and branching shapes in silica formations that strongly resemble the Martian cauliflower rocks. New research presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting last month by planetary geologist Steven Ruff and geology professor Jack Farmer, both of Arizona State University, explores the possibility that microbes might have been involved in fashioning the Martian rocks, too.
A sizzling visit to El Tatio’s geysers
The researchers ventured to the remote geyser fields of El Tatio in the Chilean Atacama Desert to study an environment that may have mimicked Gusev Crater billions of years ago when it bubbled with hydrothermal activity. One of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama’s average elevation is 13,000 feet (4 km), exposing it to considerably more UV light from the sun and extreme temperatures ranging from -13°F to 113°F (-10° to 45°C). Outside of parts of Antarctica, it’s about as close to Mars as you’ll find on Earth.
Ruff and Farmer studied silica deposits around hot springs and geysers in El Tatio and discovered forms they call “micro-digitate silica structures” similar in appearance and composition to those on Mars (Here’s a photo). The infrared spectra of the two were also a good match. They’re still analyzing the samples to determine if heat-loving microbes may have played a role in their formation, but hypothesize that the features are “micro-stromatolites” much like those found at Yellowstone and Taupo.
Stromatolites form when a sticky film of bacteria traps and cements mineral grains to create a thin layer. Other layers form atop that one until a laminar mound or column results. The most ancient stromatolites on Earth may be about 3.5 billion years old. If Ruff finds evidence of biology in the El Tatio formations in the punishing Atacama Desert environment, it puts us one step closer to considering the possibility that ancient bacteria may have been at work on Mars.
Silica forms may originate with biology or from non-biological processes like wind, water and other environmental factors. Short of going there and collecting samples, there’s no way to be certain if the cauliflower rocks are imprinted with the signature of past Martian life. But at least we know of a promising place to look during a future sample return mission to the Red Planet. Indeed, according to Ruff, the Columbia Hills inside Gusev Crater he short list of potential sites for the 2020 Mars rover.
Steve Ruff paper comparing El Tatio with an early hot springs environment in Gusev Crater
A new mystery of Titan has been uncovered by astronomers using their latest asset in the high altitude desert of Chile. Using the now fully deployed Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, astronomers moved from observing comets to Titan. A single 3 minute observation revealed organic molecules that are askew in the atmosphere of Titan. The molecules in question should be smoothly distributed across the atmosphere, but they are not.
The Cassini/Huygens spacecraft at the Saturn system has been revealing the oddities of Titan to us, with its lakes and rain clouds of methane, and an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s. But the new observations by ALMA of Titan underscore how much more can be learned about Titan and also how incredible the ALMA array is.
The ALMA astronomers called it a “brief 3 minute snapshot of Titan.” They found zones of organic molecules offset from the Titan polar regions. The molecules observed were hydrogen isocyanide (HNC) and cyanoacetylene (HC3N). It is a complete surprise to the astrochemist Martin Cordiner from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Cordiner is the lead author of the work published in the latest release of Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The NASA Goddard press release states, “At the highest altitudes, the gas pockets appeared to be shifted away from the poles. These off-pole locations are unexpected because the fast-moving winds in Titan’s middle atmosphere move in an east–west direction, forming zones similar to Jupiter’s bands, though much less pronounced. Within each zone, the atmospheric gases should, for the most part, be thoroughly mixed.”
When one hears there is a strange, skewed combination of organic compounds somewhere, the first thing to come to mind is life. However, the astrochemists in this study are not concluding that they found a signature of life. There are, in fact, other explanations that involve simpler forces of nature. The Sun and Saturn’s magnetic field deliver light and energized particles to Titan’s atmosphere. This energy causes the formation of complex organics in the Titan atmosphere. But how these two molecules – HNC and HC3N – came to have a skewed distribution is, as the astrochemists said, “very intriguing.” Cordiner stated, “This is an unexpected and potentially groundbreaking discovery… a fascinating new problem.”
The press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory states, “studying this complex chemistry may provide insights into the properties of Earth’s very early atmosphere.” Additionally, the new observations add to understanding Titan – a second data point (after Earth) for understanding organics of exo-planets, which may number in the hundreds of billions beyond our solar system within our Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers need more data points in order to sift through the many exo-planets that will be observed and harbor organic compounds. With Titan and Earth, astronomers will have points of comparison to determine what is happening on distant exo-planets, whether it’s life or not.
The report of this new and brief observation also underscores the new astronomical asset in the altitudes of Chile. ALMA represents the state of the art of millimeter and sub-millimeter astronomy. This field of astronomy holds a lot of promise. Back around 1980, at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, alongside the great visible light telescopes, there was an oddity, a millimeter wavelength dish. That dish was the beginning of radio astronomy in the 1 – 10 millimeter wavelength range. Millimeter astronomy is only about 35 years old. These wavelengths stand at the edge of the far infrared and include many light emissions and absorptions from cold objects which often include molecules and particularly organics. The ALMA array has 10 times more resolving power than the Hubble space telescope.
The Earth’s atmosphere stands in the way of observing the Universe in these wavelengths. By no coincidence our eyes evolved to see in the visible light spectrum. It is a very narrow band, and it means that there is a great, wide world of light waves to explore with different detectors than just our eyes.
In the millimeter range of wavelengths, water, oxygen, and nitrogen are big absorbers. Some wavelengths in the millimeter range are completely absorbed. So there are windows in this range. ALMA is designed to look at those wavelengths that are accessible from the ground. The Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama desert at 5000 meters (16,400 ft) provides the driest, clearest location in the world for millimeter astronomy outside of the high altitude regions of the Antarctic.
At high altitude and over this particular desert, there is very little atmospheric water. ALMA consists of 66 12 meter (39 ft) and 7 meter (23 ft) dishes. However, it wasn’t just finding a good location that made ALMA. The 35 year history of millimeter-wavelength astronomy has been a catch up game. Detecting these wavelengths required very sensitive detectors – low noise in the electronics. The steady improvement in solid-state electronics from the late 70s to today and the development of cryostats to maintain low temperatures have made the new observations of Titan possible. These are observations that Cassini at 1000 kilometers from Titan could not do but ALMA at 1.25 billion kilometers (775 million miles) away could.
The prototype ALMA telescope was tested at the site of the VLA in New Mexico in 2003. That prototype now stands on Kitt Peak having replaced the original millimeter wavelength dish that started this branch of astronomy in the 1980s. The first dishes arrived in 2007 followed the next year by the huge transporters for moving each dish into place at such high altitude. The German-made transporter required a cabin with an oxygen supply so that the drivers could work in the rarefied air at 5000 meters. The transporter was featured on an episode of the program Monster Moves. By 2011, test observations were taking place, and by 2013 the first science program was undertaken. This year, the full array was in place and the second science program spawned the Titan observations. Many will follow. ALMA, which can operate 24 hours per day, will remain the most powerful instrument in its class for about 10 years when another array in Africa will come on line.
Last month a dozen journalists from around North America were guests of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and got to take a trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile to attend the inauguration of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array observatory — ALMA, for short.
It was, in no uncertain terms, a radio astronomer’s paradise.
Join one radio astronomer, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, on her trip to the 5100-meter-high Chajnantor Plateau to visit the ALMA sites in this video, also featuring NRAO’s Tania Burchell, John Stoke, Charles Blue and the Planetary Society’s Mat Kaplan.
ALMA will open a new window on celestial origins, capturing never-before seen details about the very first stars and galaxies in the Universe, probing the heart of our galaxy, and directly imaging the formation of planets. It is the largest leap in telescope technology since Galileo first aimed a lens on the Universe.
Researchers from the Center of Astrobiology (CAB) in Spain and the Catholic University of the North in Chile have found an “oasis” of microorganisms living two meters beneath the arid soil of the Atacama, proving that even on the driest place on Earth, life finds a way.
Chile’s Atacama Desert receives on average less than .01 cm (.004 inches) of rain per year. In some locations rain has not fallen for over 400 years. But even in this harsh environment there is moisture… just enough, at least, for rock salts and other compounds that can absorb any traces of water to support microbial life beneath the surface.
Using a device called SOLID (Signs Of LIfe Detection) developed by CAB, the researchers were able to identify the presence of microorganisms living on thin films of water within the salty subsurface soil.
Even the substrate itself is able to absorb moisture from the air, concentrating it into films only a few microns thick around the salt crystals. This gives the microorganisms everything they need to survive and flourish — two to three meters underground.
At that depth, there is no sunlight and no oxygen, but there is life.
And even when researchers dug to a depth of five meters (a little over 16 feet) and took samples back to a lab, they were able to not only locate microorganisms but also revive them with the addition of a little water.
Of course, the implications for finding life — or at least the remains of its past existence — on Mars is evident. Mars has been shown to have saline deposits in many regions, and the salt is what helps water remain liquid, longer.
“The high concentration of salt has a double effect: it absorbs water between the crystals and lowers the freezing point, so that they can have thin films of water (in brine) at temperatures several degrees below zero, up to minus 20 C,” said Victor Parro, researcher from the Center of Astrobiology (INTA-CSIC, Spain) and coordinator of the study. This is within the temperature range of many regions of Mars, and also anything located several meters below the surface would be well protected from UV radiation from the Sun.
“If there are similar microbes on Mars or remains in similar conditions to the ones we have found in Atacama, we could detect them with instruments like SOLID,” Parro said.