Mars Analogues for Space Exploration (MASE) - Looking for answers about life on other planets

It seems to be a question as old as civilization: are we alone in the universe? Greek philosophers postulated that if there was life on our home planet, then surely there had to be other habitable worlds. For centuries we lacked the technology to test this hypothesis, but in the 20th century, the famous experiment of Miller and Urey (Fig. 1) along with other developments, allowed the field of astrobiology to make the leap from a speculative to an empirical science.

Fig 1. The Miller-Urey experiment demonstrated that several organic compounds could be formed spontaneously by simulating the primordial Earth’s atmosphere-ocean system. This experiment was immediately recognized as a breakthrough towards studying the origin of life.

 

Astrobiology, the study of the origin and evolution of life in the universe, is a highly interdisciplinary field comprising many disciplines including biology, chemistry, astronomy, geology and physics. Much of astrobiology’s efforts to look for answers about life on other planets have been focused on Mars due to its proximity and similarity to Earth. The Martian environment is physically extreme, with temperatures ranging from -25°C to +80 °C, an intense ultraviolet radiation flux, and little or no liquid surface water. Thus, to begin to assess the past, present and future habitability of the Red Planet we can investigate the most extreme places on Earth.

Within this framework, the overall aim of the Mars Analogues for Space Exploration (MASE) project is to study a variety of Mars-like environments in order to further our understanding of Martian habitability, as well as our ability to detect organisms that might be present on Mars. This collaborative, four-year research project supported by the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme has been running since January 2014 and a variety of extreme environments have been investigated since then (Fig. 2).

Fig 2. Mars analogues sampled in the MASE project: Rio Tinto (Spain), sulphide springs in Spinneauer Moor (Germany) and Graenavatn Lake (Iceland).

 

The Boulby Mine, located on the North East Coast of England, harbors unique ancient rock formations of honey-comb like, hexagonal patterns that were formed 250 million years ago (Fig. 3). Similar geological formations have been observed on the surface of Mars and the analysis of these rocks may hold key information, better preparing us to spot exotic signs of life on Mars in future space missions.

MASE scientists suspect that there is a different composition between the black rims and the white salty matrix of the Boulby Mine formations (Fig. 3). The black rims of these polygonal formations may contain clay, iron and organics, and perhaps even signatures of past life. Last July, as part of the MINAR field campaign, five MASE astrobiologists team descended 1.1 kilometers below Earth’s surface to the deep, dark, salty environment of the Boulby Mine. There they spent two days under the dusty, suffocating 30°C heat, hunting for Mars-like life (Fig. 4).

Fig 3.  Honey-comb like polygons at Boulby Mine (left) and formations observed in Mars surface (right).

 

Preliminary analysis of the rocks, using a laser-based technique called Raman spectroscopy, confirmed that there are differences in molecular composition between the interior and the edge of the polygons, but further analysis is needed in order to draw formal conclusions about the presence of signs of life. The solid samples collected from the edge and interior of these polygonal formations will be analyzed in the laboratory to further investigate their mineral composition, organic matter, and microorganisms.

MASE scientists also used an instrument called SOLID (Signs of Life Detector), which can detect the presence of microorganisms and biochemical compounds in solid samples, and which is expected to improve our ability to detect life beyond Earth. Next year, MASE scientists will be back in Boulby Mine to perform the MINAR 5 fieldwork campaign, which will be jointly organized with NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Fig 4.  Drilling work at the polygons, Raman spectroscopy analysis and SOLID instrumentation.

 

During the last 3 years, MASE has made great strides towards achieving its scientific objectives, disseminating information about activities and results through a variety of communication platforms, establishing new collaborations within the European astrobiology community and leveraging a huge amount of science that it is in the process of being published. The MASE project will officially end in December 2017 and will have delivered fundamental information about how analog environments provide focus for sound science, technology testing, and protocol development. Until then, stay tuned for more MASE posts!

Further information

MASE is a collaborative, four-year research project supported by the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013 Grant Agreement n° 607297).

MASE project website
mase.esf.org

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The views expressed by the authors of the Science Connector Blog articles do not necessarily represent the views of the European Science Foundation as a whole, or of its members.

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