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MASE Astrobiologists study Mars-like environments on Earth to better understand extra-terrestrial signs of life

Recently, a team of astrobiologists from the EU-funded MASE (Mars Analogues for Space Exploration) project descended 1.1 kilometers below Earth’s surface to the Mars-like environment of the Boulby Mine in the UK looking for answers about life on other planets. Six members of the MASE team headed to the mine on the North East coast of England to study ancient formations of honeycomb-like hexagonal patterns that were formed 250 million years ago. Similar geological formations have been observed on Mars and the analysis of these rocks will help future space missions to better identify potential sites for biosignatures.

Speaking about the recent investigation, MASE scientific coordinator Professor Charles Cockell from the UK Centre for Astrobiology explains: “In Boulby the rocks were formed around 250 million years ago, in a giant inland sea. We think the polygonal shapes are connected to the expansion of salt when the sea periodically dried out, similar to the processes we see in places like Death Valley in California today. These features are similar to some environments we see on Mars. We suspect that the rims contain clay, iron and organics and we want to test the hypothesis that they contain signatures of life.”

The objective of the campaign to Boulby Mine was to collect solid samples to study their composition whilst at the same time testing different life-detection instruments that can be used to study salt deposits on Earth and elsewhere. The campaign was also part of the UK Centre for Astrobiology’s MINAR (Mine Analog Research) work that seeks to advance science and technology for planetary exploration using the mine.

The overall aim of MASE, a collaborative, four-year research project supported by the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7 - Grant Agreement n° 607297), is to provide new insights into the adaptations of life to Mars-like conditions and the potential preservation of their biosignatures. The European Science Foundation (ESF) leads the co-ordination and dissemination strategy for MASE which runs from January 2014 to December 2017.

Speaking about their involvement, ESF Chief Executive Jean-Claude Worms said: “The European Science Foundation works closely with the MASE team, supervising the administrative and scientific progress of this unique project. ESF has a long track history in key European initiatives to advance research on life-detection in extraterrestrial environments. Through sampling of analogue sites, studying and stressing anaerobic organisms as well as mimicking the natural fossilisation processes, the MASE project addresses our current limitations in knowledge and will advance our ability to assess the habitability of Mars and detect life. “

The MASE team is drafting the first scientific publications to be made publicly available in Open Access format and widely disseminated through scientific databases. 


Issued by:

Rachel Graham, MKC Communications, 00 353 1 7038608

For MASE project information please contact:

Mr. Nicolas Walter – Administrative Coordinator, European Science Foundation: nwalter[at] 

Dr. Patricia Cabezas – Administrative Coordinator, European Science Foundation: pcabezas[at]

Prof. Charles Cockell – Scientific Coordinator, University of Edinburgh: c.s.cockell[at]

Note to Editor:

The Mars Analogues for Space Exploration project is supported by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement n° 607297.

The MASE consortium consists of Charles Cockell (The University of Edinburgh, UK); Petra Rettberg (The German Aerospace Centre, Germany); Ricardo Amils (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain); Viggo Thór Marteinsson (MATĺS Ltd., Iceland); Pascale Ehrenfreund (Leiden Institute of Chemistry, Netherlands); Felipe Gomez Gomez (Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial – Centro de Astrobiología, Spain); Christine Moissl-Eichinger (Medical University of Graz, Austria); Frances Westall (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France) and Nicolas Walter (European Science Foundation, France).

European Science Foundation (ESF):

ESF is a services-based organisation that contributes to the European Research Area (ERA). It is building on core strengths developed over 42 years in peer review, evaluation and project management services and hosts five Expert Boards and Committees that provide in-depth and focused scientific expertise in selected disciplines.