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.”