The Space that Life Has

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Redistribution may explain surface features that look to have been carved by running water within the past million years, long after the large ocean disappeared. Imagery taken from orbit, going back to Viking, has shown morning fog and mist rising from the floor of Martian canyons, leading scientists to theorize that liquid water may still be trapped under the surface. Schulze-Makuch even speculates that Martian organisms might draw water directly from the atmosphere.

And last September, high-resolution images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed that even today, water—actually, brine that can stay liquid at cold temperatures—flows down steep slopes in the Martian spring and summer. The discovery that liquid water has persisted on the surface of Mars over long periods gives hope that life arose there, and that it found a way to adapt to harsh conditions, which changed as the surface water disappeared.

The next major mission to the surface of the Red Planet is ExoMars , a joint project of the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, which is supplying the Proton rocket. Currently slated to soft-land on Mars in January or two years later if the launch date slips, as has been rumored , ExoMars will deploy a rover equipped with a drill capable of boring down six feet. In choosing a landing site for ExoMars , project scientists used orbital data to scout out places with sedimentary rocks, especially fine-grained clays, that clearly formed in the presence of water, as in an ancient lakebed.

The ExoMars project narrowed the potential landing sites to four, the top candidate being Oxia Planum, a smooth, flat plain with only a light dust covering, so more of the surface rock should be exposed.

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Here, 18 degrees north of the Martian equator, the ExoMars rover will look for evidence of biology. Finding visible fossils—say, the remains of bacteria like those seen in some ancient Australian rocks—would be wonderful, but for a number of reasons extremely unlikely. For one, such fossils would almost certainly be too small for the ExoMars close-up camera to resolve.

So just as Viking did 40 years ago, the ExoMars search focuses on chemistry. It will use two kinds of spectrometer to analyze drilled samples for traces of organic molecules, and scientists hope to be able to distinguish compounds associated with biology from those that are non-biological. All plant and animal life on Earth is based on left-handed amino acids although some microbes can, in a pinch, consume the right-handed versions of nutrients. An ExoMars sample with a mixture of both chiralities would imply geologic origin, whereas a predominance of one chirality over another would suggest a biological origin—that is, if Martian life also has a preferred handedness.

It will land seven months later and begin searching for rocks that can be sealed in a container and returned to Earth by a future spacecraft, still to be specified. Scientists have long hankered for a mission that can bring Mars rocks home, so they can analyze them on Earth with more sophisticated instruments than can fit on a lander. Mars is the first half of that mission, and it will be up to the rover to identify the precious few rocks that have the best chance of containing bio-signatures, or evidence of life.

Instead, from two inches away, SHERLOC will shine far-ultraviolet lasers on rocks to cause their constituent chemicals to either scatter light or fluoresce emit light. The resulting spectrum should reveal the chemical fingerprints of any organic molecules in the rocks. Promising samples would be candidates for caching—again while taking steps to avoid contamination—and eventual return to Earth. The Mars team has yet to choose its landing site—eight candidates are in the running. Selecting the right location is critical, since the two-part mission is a multibillion-dollar investment.

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  8. If no biology is found at the site, or if the answer is muddled, as with Viking, critics might say NASA wasted its money going to the wrong place. Because of budget constraints, not every proposed biology experiment can fly, so some worthy approaches to life detection will go untried. But the payload was dropped along with several other instruments to save costs and reduce weight. Another constraint on scientists looking for Martian life: Cleaning large, complex spacecraft with dry heat is difficult and expensive.

    For now, Mars mission planners avoid landing sites that might have liquid water, even though those are the sites most likely to have life. The team behind a proposed mission called Icebreaker, which would send a small, Phoenix-like lander to high Martian latitudes where liquid water might exist, is trying other approaches to removing microbial contamination, such as chemical cleaning of any equipment that comes in contact with the sample. Icebreaker at this point an unfunded concept would carry a drill capable of penetrating three feet into the soil.

    The real hope is to find a second genesis: Just as rocks blasted off the Martian surface by ancient impacts have found their way to Antarctica, organic material from Earth may have already been transported to Mars, says McKay. Hence the need to test for Earth-like nucleic acids like DNA. Most biology on Earth is based on roughly 20 amino acids, but in nature there are some such compounds.

    Discovering Martian life-forms based on different amino acids would point to a second genesis, independent of our own. So would finding Mars life that used the same amino acids as terrestrial organisms, but with right-handed chirality. Cleland applauds any search that includes possible alien biochemistry.

    So look for patterns or unexpected degrees of complexity. We need to investigate anomalies: She is especially intrigued by repeated detections of methane gas on Mars, starting with Mariner 7 in , again by Mars Express and Earth-based telescopes in the early s, and most recently by Curiosity, which detected mysterious, short-lived burps of methane on the surface at Gale Crater. The jury is still out as to whether the source is geological or biological.

    But this one instrument is unlikely to settle the question of whether the methane comes from a biological source.

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    While the prospect that living Martian organisms are exhaling methane right now is exciting, McKay cautions against being so intent on finding something alive on Mars that we overlook how significant it would be to stumble across evidence that something lived there in the past. Perhaps the most persuasive evidence of past life would be recognizable fossils—hence the tremendous flurry of excitement in the s when several scientists thought they might have discovered ancient micro-fossils of bacteria in the four-billion-year-old Martian meteorite ALH , retrieved from the icy wastes of Antarctica.

    Even the identification of ancient micro-fossils on Earth is controversial. The identification of life on Mars therefore is unlikely to rest on a single picture, or even a single piece of data. His worry is not just false positives—evidence that wrongly suggests life on Mars. If Sims sounds like a worrier, he has the scars to prove it. He never got a chance even to begin that search. Though finding life on Mars appears a near-impossible task, scientists have reason for optimism. Compared to our knowledge in the Viking era, we now know more about biology, including weird biology, and much more about Mars.

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