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Refining the Tools for Life Detection

If you’re looking for a terrestrial analogue to one part of the Martian environment, you could do worse than the ice vents inside a frozen volcano on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. There, in a one million year old volcano called Sverrefjell, a team of researchers has found a community of microbes both living and fossilized. Ice-filled volcanic vents are believed to occur on Mars and may well be a potential habitat for life on the planet.

Behind the Svalbard investigations is AMASE, the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition, which is designing devices and techniques that may one day be used by automated landers to search for life on Mars. And thus far the findings are promising. The team has been able to perform its tests while maintaining scrupulous sterility, a key factor in ensuring that ‘life’ detections on another planet aren’t simply the result of Earthly microorganisms being introduced into the local ecology.

Examining 780-million year old sedinmentary rocks, the team also found the remains of microbial structures inside, what biogeochemist and astrobiologist Marilyn Fogel (Carnegie Institution), calls “chemical markers of fossilized life.” Further good news is that AMASE’s work should be emminently adaptable to the Martian surface. “If there is similar evidence in ancient rocks on Mars,” says Fogel, “our equipment will be able to find it.”

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  • ljk May 5, 2008, 9:14

    What Mars Fossils Might Look Like

    By Susan Brown

    Astrobiology Magazine

    posted: 01 May 2008, 07:49 am ET

    Fossil microbes found along an iron-rich river in Spain reveal how signs of life could be preserved in minerals found on Mars. The discovery may help to equip the next generation Mars rover with the tools it would need to find evidence of past life on the planet.

    Full article and images here:


  • ljk May 9, 2008, 15:32

    Is Mars Between Ice Ages?

    “Mars is not a dead planet – it undergoes climate changes that are even more pronounced than on Earth.”

    James Head of Brown University

    The prevailing thinking is that Mars is a planet whose active climate has been confined to the distant past. About 3.5 billion years ago, the Red Planet had extensive flowing water and then fell quiet – deadly quiet. It didn’t seem the climate had changed much since. Now, recent studies by scientists at Brown University show that Mars’ climate has been much more dynamic than previously believed.

    After examining stunning high-resolution images taken last year by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers have documented for the first time that ice packs at least 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) thick and perhaps 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) thick existed along Mars’ mid-latitude belt as recently as 100 million years ago. In addition, the team believes other images tell them that glaciers flowed in localized areas in the last 10 to 100 million years – a blink of the eye in Mars’s geological timeline.

    This evidence of recent activity means the Martian climate may change again and could bolster speculation about whether the Red Planet can, or did, support life.

    “We’ve gone from seeing Mars as a dead planet for three-plus billion years to one that has been alive in recent times,” said Jay Dickson, a research analyst in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown and lead author. “[The finding] has changed our perspective from a planet that has been dry and dead to one that is icy and active.”

    In fact, Dickson and his co-authors, James Head, a planetary geologist, and David Marchant, an associate professor at Boston University, believe the images show that Mars has gone through multiple Ice Ages – episodes in its recent past in which the planet’s mid-latitudes were covered by glaciers that disappeared with changes in the Red Planet’s obliquity, which changes the climate by altering the amount of sunlight falling on different areas.

    Full article here:


  • ljk March 30, 2009, 10:41

    Possible Mud Volcanoes on Mars

    Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA

    Explanation: Is this a mud volcano on Mars? If so, could it be dredging up martian microbes? This strange possibility has been suggested recently and seems to fit several recent observations of Mars. First of all, hills like this seem to better resemble mud volcanoes on Earth than lava volcanoes and impact craters on Mars. Next, the pictured dome has an unusually textured surface consistent with fractured ice.

    Infrared images from space indicate that hills like this cool more quickly than surrounding rock, consistent with a dried mud composition. The hills also reflect colors consistent with a composition that formed in the presence of water.

    Finally, unusual plumes of gas containing methane have been found on Mars with unknown origin. These gas plumes could conceivably have been liberated by mud volcanoes, were the initially warm mud to contain methane-producing microbes drifting in a previously unobservable underground lake.

    A candidate mud volcano over 100 meters across is pictured above in the northern plains of Mars.