The future of life detection on Mars: We come in peace, but carry lasers!

       

This is a guest post by Samantha Rolfe, a PhD student at the The Open University’s Department of Physical Sciences, where she is researching potential biomarkers on Mars using Raman spectroscopy. You can find her on Twitter, or talking science on Radio Verulam

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The robotic exploration of other planets has been happening for many decades now. We have been to almost all the classical planets, with the New Horizons mission presently on its way to the Pluto‑Charon system (Pluto will always be a planet in my heart). Among the earliest fragile feelers of this type were extended in the 1970s in the shape of the Viking missions to Mars. Mars has been the subject of speculation for over a century in the minds of humans when considering whether we are alone in the Universe. For many years, almost right up to the landing of the Viking missions, it was believed that Mars had vegetation on its surface; Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had observed a network of linear ‘channels’ on Mars during observations in 1877, which was later mistranslated as ‘canals’ by Percival Lowell, further fuelling the fire that intelligent Martians existed there. However, images from the Mariner program showed the surface to be littered with craters, a surface similar to that of the Moon.

The first ‘clear’ image from the surface of Mars sent back by Viking 1 shortly after landing (NASA/Roel van der Hoorn).

The Viking landers were sent with life detection instrumentation, the results of which proved inconclusive (though recent reanalysis shows they may have detected organic material but it was masked by geochemical processes that were not understood at the time) and this led to pessimism about finding life elsewhere in the Solar System in planetary science departments around the world. Nonetheless, with improving technology and further study of Mars from orbit and the ground has revealed that Mars definitely had areas of standing and running water on its surface for a significant amount of time; long enough to create fluvial fans, sedimentary stacks and rounded pebbles, which are amongst the evidence for liquid water. These discoveries, along with the developing discipline of astrobiology, have forced us to continue looking for the potential of Mars as a habitable planet.

The concept of habitability has been stretched in recent years with the in depth study of extremophiles, often single celled organisms (though they can be found on all three branches of the phylogenetic tree) living in conditions where humans would instantly perish. Examples of terrestrial life living at extremes of temperature, pressure or salinity, for example, makes for an interesting case that Mars may too host life. Liquid water can only exist at the surface of Mars if its freezing point is depressed to extremes, evidence of which has been found in the form of Recurring Slope Lineae – streaks seen to lengthen and retreat with the seasons on crater walls – if there is liquid water at the surface, perhaps there are reservoirs in the subsurface which life could utilise.

Recurring Slope Lineae in Newton Crater on Mars, evidence for liquid water at the surface (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona).

Future missions to planetary bodies will be employing new techniques to search for life. Raman spectroscopy is one of these techniques. A non-destructive laser is fired at a sample and some of the reflected photons are engaged in a non-elastic interaction with the sampled molecules, slightly changing the frequency of the returning light. This is displayed as spectroscopic peaks or bands representative of the individual bonds within the molecule. Therefore, each molecule has its own unique Raman spectrum allowing the identification of organic and inorganic molecules even within a mixed matrix of materials, making it a useful tool for life detection.

The present surface conditions of Mars are not forgiving to the survival organic material or, therefore, its detection. The surface is known to be an oxidising environment, leading to the destruction of organic material that may exist at the surface of Mars. The Martian subsurface may be protecting organic molecules waiting to be detected as tantalising evidence for the possible existence of life on the Red Planet. ESA’s ExoMars mission, due to launch in 2018, will be carrying a Raman spectrometer and ideas for future missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa are also considering strapping a Raman spectrometer to them and throwing it into the extreme radiation environment of the Jovian system.

Before we land on these planetary bodies, we can test what we think we are expecting i.e. can organic molecules be detected in simulated Martian environments? Experiments have shown that organic molecules such as amino acids are able to survive Martian surface conditions, for perhaps millions of years (extrapolated) in small quantities (parts per billion). In the harsh light of the Martian day (where the atmosphere does not block the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun as effectively as the Earth’s does), the Raman signatures of amino acids are degraded. Similar results are seen for microbes, such as Deinococcus radiodurans. Their Raman signatures have been analysed and examined after exposure to the ionising radiation environment expected at the surface and near surface of Mars.

If we are to discover organic molecules or even microbial Raman signatures on Mars then it is apparent that we will need to dig or drill down into the subsurface, beyond the depth where destructive ultraviolet and ionising radiation can penetrate. For ultraviolet, mere millimetres of regolith can block harmful rays, but the depth to which ionising radiation is able to penetrate is thought to be at least 2 m below the surface. Luckily, ExoMars will carry a drill with the ability to bore to a depth of 2 m (see what they did there?). Drilling to this depth has never been attempted before and will be a great feat of engineering if achieved. Samples recovered from the subsurface will need to be handled with great care and be removed from direct interaction with the Martian daylight as experiments have shown that Raman signatures of some organic molecules can begin to degrade within seconds, losing vital information about potential life that may exist or have existed in the subsurface.

A typical Raman spectrum of the amino acid Alanine, used in biological processes, most commonly in the building of proteins.

Raman spectroscopy is only some of what we have to look forward to in terms of future martian life detection missions and with all the new information we have been gathering with Curiosity of the Mars Sample Laboratory mission in Gale Crater (rounded pebbles indicating long term presence of liquid water, Mars is not red all over but grey too – a sedimentary rock, ‘John Klein’, was drilled into, a first in Mars exploration, and was found to be grey under the surface with analysis being consistent with clay minerals), we can only imagine what we might find in the future. Especially given that Curiosity’s mission is only to assess the habitability of Mars, not search for life, we have so much to look forward to.

 

Despite the amazing advances and discoveries made by robotic missions, robots are no substitute for human exploration. It is thought that humans could have conducted the same amount of research that the Mars rovers have within a few days or weeks, compared to the several years that it has taken. However, human space exploration warrants further discussion as there are many difficulties that we need to overcome before travel into interplanetary space will be safe enough, never mind the spiralling costs.

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