Mars Rover

An exploratory project to find fossil microbes on the Red Planet has been proposed between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). The possibility of finding alien life has long been an alluring concept for many and this new scheme intends to bring Martian soil to Earth for intensive study.

What is the plan? The Mars Sample Return project aims to provide a new way of studying material from Mars by blasting samples into space which will be intercepted by an unmanned spacecraft. This spacecraft would then drop the 500 g of rock and soil, by parachute, onto the Utah desert. The project due to start in 2020 will use the new NASA Mars Rover and a second ESA fetch rover will be deployed in 2028.

Why? Billions of years ago the conditions on Mars were similar to that of Earth today with flowing water and a thick atmosphere. This atmosphere has mostly disappeared now, so scientists want to understand if life managed to evolve during that time. The study of Mars can provide insights into how Earth formed and what crucial differences allowed the continued formation of life. In addition, the possibility of finding traces of fossil microbes would be hugely exciting for comparison to our own carbon-based life.

What could they find? The biological jackpot would be finding evidence of life – in the form of organic molecules or degraded nucleotides. Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and with the presence of amino acids, form the building blocks of proteins and life.

What analysis is required? Liquid chromatography-mass spectroscopy has been used previously on meteorites and an array of nucleotides were found. From these, three nucleotides were discovered that are incredibly rare on Earth and not found in the surrounding area of the meteorite. This was deemed evidence of extra-terrestrial compounds, however contamination from space or Earth is a real possibility. Mass-spectroscopy allows scientists to determine the size and features of molecules in a sample and identify them. The careful sealing of the Martian samples is hoped to prevent any biological contamination or to prevent any breakouts of alien bacteria – as unlikely as it is.

Why is this important? As previously discussed on FLG, ancient remains could hold clues for new antibiotics. In addition, if any nucleotides are found the composition may provide insights into how Martian life operated chemically compared to our DNA. Alternatively, and perhaps the more exciting possibility would be the discovery of chemically similar nucleotides; inferring the presence of common building blocks of life here on earth and Mars.

Astrobiologists (a rare job title) are excited by this possibility of handling Mars samples and are hopeful that the effort, and investment, required to retrieve it will be worth it.

For more information on the Mars Sample Project, click here

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