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close-up of the red planet Mars
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope took this close-up of the red planet Mars. Credit: NASA

Researchers hone technique for finding signs of life on the Red Planet

For centuries, people have imagined the possibility of life on Mars. But long-held dreams that Martians could be invaders of Earth, or little green men, or civilized superbeings, all have been undercut by missions to our neighboring planet that have, so far, uncovered no life at all.

Yet visits to the Red Planet by unmanned probes from NASA and the European Space Agency have found evidence that a prime condition for life once may have existed: water.

“There has been a tremendous amount of very exciting findings this year that Mars once contained actively flowing, low-saline, near-neutral-pH water — pretty much the type of water where you find life on Earth today,” said Alison Olcott Marshall, assistant professor of geology at the University of Kansas. “This has made people think that it’s possible that life could have existed on Mars, although most researchers agree it’s unlikely to exist today — at least on the surface — as conditions on the surface of Mars are incredibly harsh.”

Olcott Marshall is working with her colleague and husband, Craig Marshall, associate professor of geology at KU, to improve the way scientists detect condensed aromatic carbon, thought to be a chemical signature of astrobiology.

“If we’re going to identify life on Mars, it will likely be the fossil remnants of the chemicals once synthesized by life, and we hope our research helps strengthen the ability to evaluate the evidence collected on Mars,” Craig Marshall said.

Craig Marshall is an expert in using Raman spectroscopy to look for carbonaceous materials, while Alison Olcott Marshall is a paleontologist interested in how the record of life gets preserved on Earth, especially when there is no bone or shell or tooth or other hard part to fossilize.

The pair is known recently for overturning the idea that 3.5 billion-year-old specks found in rocks in Australia were the oldest examples of life on Earth. (Rather than ancient bacteria fossils, the researchers showed the shapes were nothing more than tiny gaps in the rock that are packed with minerals.)

If traces if ancient biology are detected in Mars, the KU researchers want to make sure the evidence is more conclusive.

According to a recent paper by the Marshalls in the peer-reviewed Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, by itself Raman spectroscopy is able to screen for carbonaceous material, but it can’t determine its source — thus the technology needs to be supplemented in order to determine if life exists on Mars.

“Raman spectroscopy works by impinging a laser on a sample so the molecules within that sample vibrate at diagnostic frequencies,” Craig Marshall said. “Measuring those frequencies allows the identification of inorganic and organic materials. It’s insufficient because however the carbonaceous material is made, it will be the same chemically and structurally, and thus Raman spectroscopy cannot determine the origin.”

The Marshalls call for the use of gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy to supplement Raman spectroscopy and develop more conclusive evidence of ancient extraterrestrial life.

“Much like the search for ancient life on Earth, though, one strand of evidence is not, and should not be, conclusive,” said Alison Olcott Marshall. “This is a vast puzzle, and we want to make sure we are examining as many different pieces as we can.”

Currently, the KU researchers are extending this line of investigation by using Raman spectroscopy to analyze rocks from Earth that are similar to those on Mars. They hope to publish their findings in the near future.

“If you were to pick up a typical rock on Mars it would look quite different, chemically, from a typical rock here on Earth, not to mention the fact that it would be covered in rusty dust,” Alison Olcott Marshall said. “Previous research into how Raman spectroscopy would fare on Mars was mainly done on pure salts and minerals, often ones synthesized in a lab. We identified field sites on the Kansas-Oklahoma border with a chemical content more like what could be found on Mars, right down to the rusty dust, and we’ve been exploring how Raman spectroscopy fares in such an environment.”

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Kansas. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. C. P. Marshall, A. O. Marshall. Raman spectroscopy as a screening tool for ancient life detection on Mars. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 2014; 372 (2030): 20140195 DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2014.0195
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  • Thomas Buyea — FLA. News Service, Miami, Fl. USA

    We researchers are Not interested in current or past microbes, bacteria, chemicals on Mars, We know there has been and may still be intelligent life on Mars from the Face, The Cities, The Pyramids and the Glass Tunnels and archeological items they have somewhat already shown us, We want crawling surveyors in those areas with no delay in the video transmissions so they can cover up the real proof, After all it is Our Tax Money paying for these Mars explorations !!!
    It would not surprise me that one of the explores has been landed near these proofs, But they only show us what is shown when the cameras are pointed out away from the intelligent life made things ?

  • proggy

    Good luck Thomas….. Never A Straight Answer for you my friend…..

  • Thomas Buyea

    I do not understand what your reply means ? Are you agreeing with me that NASA never gives a straight answer ? Or that I am asking too much of them to go to where we know from their photos that the proof exists ?
    I have written several emails to NASA at several different departments and email addresses asking why they do not send their explorers to the areas with the Pyramids etc. and I have never received a single reply, But I still pay their salaries ! ?
    Tom Buyea, Miami, Fl.

  • …We don`t need to trundle to Mars to eak out what may have been,while tons of instances…one of which I feel traumatised,but feel priveledged to have witnessed right here on Earth.That incident of 6.5.91,here in New Zealand,opened Pandora`s box…screwed my mind…left me with unexplained skills of pre-emptive episodes(Sight/sound) coinciding combinations,ie;the unnerving phenomenum of reading text,;ie;on-screen,or paper print….while with a radio playing next to me,as my eyes fall onto any random word or passage,some of a relativly complex,or not often used words or constructions,coincide precisely with the spoken word of the speaker on the radio.This is so off-putting when I am reading now,I have to switch of radio/tv when I am reading/typing.This along with certain Visual traits,started from around the time of the”Incident”…Google my name,you will see that which I can tell you,exist`s in reality.So,why don`t they research what is already here….probably has been here forever.If the weapons industry ever got hold of the concepts of what I saw,heaven help us all.Kindest Regards,Richard L Pinfold,South Pacific Research(SPR),Otaki,Kapiti Coast,North Island,New Zealand,South Pacific.

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