Science News

Astrobiologists study Mars on Earth

It’s going to be a while before any of the world’s space agencies send astronauts to Mars. In the meantime, one group of scientists is studying Mars on Earth — or at least, Mars-like environments.

Researchers with Mars Analogues for Space Exploration, a program funded by the European Science Foundation, descended deep beneath Earth’s surface in England’s Boulby Mine in order to study Mars-like conditions and collect Mars-like rock samples.

Rock formations with honeycomb-like hexagonal patterns, found more than a half mile deep in the mine, recall structures observed on the surface of Mars. Researchers are studying the patterns so astrobiologists will know where to look for signs of life on the Red Planet.

A number of studies have found a variety of microbial communities living deep inside the Earth, and scientists believe it’s likely bacteria are hiding on Mars, too.

“In Boulby the rocks were formed around 250 million years ago, in a giant inland sea,” Charles Cockell, lead researcher on the MASE project and a professor at the U.K. Center for Astrobiology, said in a news release. “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,” Cockell added. “We suspect that the rims contain clay, iron and organics and we want to test the hypothesis that they contain signatures of life.”

In addition to studying the composition of rock samples collected from the Boulby Mine, researchers plan to test a series of life-detection devices used to hunt for microorganisms in seemingly inhabitable places.

“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,” European Science Foundation CEO Jean-Claude Worms said recently.