Looking for life on Mars won’t be easy. If it exists, it’ll be microbial and almost certainly buried slightly beneath the surface. It’ll revolutionize human civilization should we find that our lonely planet isn’t the only one that contains life, but it’s not as simple as heading to our neighbor and poking around in the dust.
Knowing where to search for it is half the battle – and a new study has come up with a rather ingenious way of finding traces of life. Using this “life detection platform”, future exploratory missions to the Red Planet may be able to follow a trail of biosignature breadcrumbs right to their source.
The research, headed by McGill University, led an interdisciplinary team to the Canadian Arctic. Specifically, they dug around in the permafrost there, chilly soil that’s frozen for two consecutive years.
At present, permafrost tends to make headlines for how quickly anthropogenic climate change is causing it to melt, as well as the caches of biogenic and geologic methane stored within it. This team were far more interested in the life contained within, and for good reason: The conditions here are somewhat similar to those on Mars.
Despite the fact that there’s still plenty of water on Mars, it’s generally an arid place. Its stripped-down atmosphere means that the surface is constantly bombarded by radiation; in addition, the atmospheric pressure there is incredibly low and the surface temperatures plunge from -73°C (-100°F) around the equator to -125°C (-195°F) at the poles.
The Canadian Arctic isn’t quite like that, but it’s similar enough to allow teams like this one to use the presence of microbial life there as an analogue to parts of Mars. If the Arctic contains extremophiles – organisms that thrive in particularly troublesome environments – then why couldn’t Mars?
The team wanted to know how many different ways they could detect life squirming around within the permafrost. To wit, they designed a package of instruments, ones that could not just dig up microbes, but run tests on them, all without requiring transportation back to a laboratory.