We Need to Consider Conservation Efforts on Mars

Curiosity at work firing a laser on Mars. This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration. Credit: NASA

Astrobiology is the field of science that studies the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe. In practice, this means sending robotic missions beyond Earth to analyze the atmospheres, surfaces, and chemistry of extraterrestrial worlds. At present, all of our astrobiology missions are focused on Mars, as it is considered the most Earth-like environment beyond our planet. While several missions will be destined for the outer Solar System to investigate “Ocean Worlds” for evidence of life (Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and Enceladus), our efforts to find life beyond Earth will remain predominantly on Mars.

If and when these efforts succeed, it will have drastic implications for future missions to Mars. Not only will great care need to be taken to protect Martian life from contamination by Earth organisms, but precautions must be taken to prevent the same from happening to Earth (aka. Planetary Protection). In a recent study, a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, recommends that legal or normative frameworks be adopted now to ensure that future missions do not threaten sites where evidence of life (past or present) might be found.

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Search for Life on Mars Could Level-Up with MARSE Mission Concept

A breakdown of the Mars Astrobiology, Resource, and Science Explorers (MARSE) mission profile and its Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device (SHIELD) system, which could revolutionize how we search for life on Mars by using four rovers at four different landing sites. (Credit: Longo (2024))

A recent study presented at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) discusses the Mars Astrobiology, Resource, and Science Explorers (MARSE) mission concept and its Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device (SHIELD), which offers a broader and cheaper method regarding the search for—past or present—life on the Red Planet, specifically by using four rovers at four different landing sites across Mars’ surface instead of just one-for-one. This concept comes as NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers continue to tirelessly explore the surface of Mars at Gale Crater and Jezero Crater, respectively.

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NASA Selects New Technology to Help Search for Life on Mars

Artist's impression of a Mars habitat in conjunction with other surface elements on Mars. Credit: NASA

The day when human beings finally set foot on Mars is rapidly approaching. Right now, NASA, the China National Space Agency (CNSA), and SpaceX have all announced plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet “by 2040”, “in 2033”, and “before 2030”, respectively. These missions will lead to the creation of long-term habitats that will enable return missions and scientific research that will investigate everything from the geological evolution of Mars to the possible existence of past (or even present) life. The opportunities this will create are mirrored only by the challenges they will entail.

One of the greatest challenges is ensuring that crews have access to water, which means that any habitats must be established near an underground source. Similarly, scientists anticipate that if there is still life on Mars today, it will likely exist in “briny patches” beneath the surface. A possible solution is to incorporate a system for large-scale water mining operations on Mars that could screen for lifeforms. The proposal, known as an Agnostic Life Finding (ALF) system, was one of thirteen concepts selected by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program this year for Phase I development.

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ESA Has a Difficult Choice: Study Mars, Earth's Magnetosphere, or Gamma-Ray Bursts

The space science community has narrowed down the shortlist for ESA’s next ‘medium’ mission to three finalists: M-Matisse, Plasma Observatory and Theseus. Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to the future and contemplating its next M-class (Medium) mission. These missions are crucial to the ESA Science Programme (part of the agency’s Science Directorate), which aims to provide the best tools to ensure Europe’s continued participation in space exploration and sustain its capabilities in space by fostering innovation, maintaining launch services, and spacecraft operations. The latest round began in December 2021, when the ESA called for proposals for the next M-class mission to launch in the mid-2030s.

In a statement issued yesterday (Wednesday, November 8th), the ESA announced that it had narrowed the list of candidates to three concepts. These include the twin M-MATISSE, the seven-spacecraft Plasma Observatory, and the THESEUS satellite. The final selection will assist ESA operations and research in space by studying the evolution and past habitability of Mars, exploring the plasma environment around Earth, or studying powerful transient events across the Universe. The final selection of one mission is expected to happen by mid-2026.

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Ancient Cracked Mud Found on Mars

A panorama image taken by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a rock target nicknamed “Pontours” where researchers identified preserved, ancient mud cracks hypothesized to have shaped throughout lengthy cycles of wet and dry environments over many years. These cycles are hypothesized to support conditions where life could form. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/IRAP)

A recent study published in Nature examines how mud cracks observed on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover could provide insight into how life on the Red Planet could have formed in its ancient past. On Earth, mud cracks have traditionally been linked to cycles of wet and dry environments that assisted in developing the complex processes responsible for microbial life to take hold. This study was conducted by an international team of researchers and holds the potential to help scientists better understand the geological and chemical processes that might have existed in Mars’ ancient past, up to billions of years ago.

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Olympus Could Have Been a Giant Volcanic Island in an Ancient Martian Ocean

Olympus Mons, captured by the ESA's Mars Express mission from orbit. Credit: ESA/DLR/FUBerlin/AndreaLuck

Olympus Mons, located at the northwest edge of the Tharsis Montes region on Mars, was appropriately named. Based on readings obtained by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), an instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), this mountain is the tallest in the Solar System, standing 21.9 km (13.6 mi) tall – about two and a half times the height of Mount Everest (8.85 km; 5.5 mi). According to current estimates, this extinct shield volcano formed during Mars’ Hesperian Period (ca. 3.7 to 3 billion years ago), which was characterized by widespread volcanic activity and catastrophic flooding.

This coincides with a period when Mars had a denser atmosphere, a warmer environment, and flowing water on its surface. This included a global ocean that spanned much of the northern hemisphere, known today as the Northern Lowlands, encompassing Olympus Mons. According to a recent study led by researchers from the Centre National de Recherches Scientifique (CNRS), features found on the slopes of Olympus Mons indicate that it could have been a massive volcanic island where volcanic eruptions flowed into the ocean, similar to ones found on Earth.

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Life Probably Didn't Have a Hand in Creating Organic Deposits on the Surface of Mars

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter analyses the martian atmosphere. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

At this very moment, eleven robotic missions are exploring Mars, a combination of orbiters, landers, rovers, and one aerial vehicle (the Ingenuity helicopter). Like their predecessors, these missions are studying Mars’ atmosphere, surface, and subsurface to learn more about its past and evolution, including how it went from a once warmer and wetter environment to the freezing, dusty, and extremely dry planet we see today. In addition, these missions are looking for evidence of past life on Mars and perhaps learning if and where it might still exist today.

One particularly interesting issue is how the atmosphere of Mars – primarily composed of carbon dioxide (CO2) – is relatively enriched with Carbon-13 (13C), aka. “heavy carbon.” For years, scientists have speculated that the ratio of this isotope to “light carbon” (12C) might be responsible for organics found on the surface (a sign of biological processes!). But after analyzing data from the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission, an international team led by The Open University determined that these organics may be “abiotic” in origin (i.e., not biological).

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Our Best Instruments Couldn’t Find Life on Mars

Jezero Crater (Left; Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) and Red Stone Jurassic fossil delta of the Atacama Desert in northwestern Chile (Right; Credit: Dr. Armando Azua-Bustos)

The planet Mars is arguably the most extensively studied planetary body in the entire Solar System, which began with telescopic observations by Galileo Galilei in 1609, with such telescopic observations later being taken to the extreme by Percival Lowell in the late 19th century when he reported seeing what he believed were artificial canals made by an advanced intelligent race of Martians. But it wasn’t until the first close up image of Mars taken by NASA’s Mariner 4 in 1965 that we saw the Red Planet for what it really was: a cold and dead world with no water and no signs of life, whatsoever.

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Mars Once had Enough Water for a Planet-Wide Ocean 300 Meters Deep

This artist’s impression shows how Mars may have looked about four billion years ago. The young planet Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 140 metres deep, but it is more likely that the liquid would have pooled to form an ocean occupying almost half of Mars’s northern hemisphere, and in some regions reaching depths greater than 1.6 kilometres. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Today, Mars is colloquially known as the “Red Planet” on a count of how its dry, dusty landscape is rich in iron oxide (aka. “rust”). In addition, the atmosphere is extremely thin and cold, and no water can exist on the surface in any form other than ice. But as the Martian landscape and other lines of evidence attest, Mars was once a very different place, with a warmer, denser atmosphere and flowing water on its surface. For years, scientists have attempted to determine how long natural bodies existed on Mars and whether or not they were intermittent or persistent.

Another important question is how much water Mars once had and whether or not this was enough to support life. According to a new study by an international team of planetary scientists, Mars may have had enough water 4.5 billion years ago to cover it in a global ocean up to 300 meters (almost 1,000 feet) deep. Along with organic molecules and other elements distributed throughout the Solar System by asteroids and comets at this time, they argue, these conditions indicate that Mars may have been the first planet in the Solar System to support life.

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