Scientists head to Australian Outback to aid in hunt for life on Mars
Last week, scientists from NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos descended on the Pilbara Outback in North West Australia to learn more about how to find signs of fossil life on Mars. By seeking out signs of ancient microbial colonies that formed hundreds of millions of years ago, they hope to gain new insights into what to look for on the Red Planet.
Half a century of studying Mars using spacecraft suggests that it's most likely that any signs of life on Mars will be in the form of fossilized microbes dating back over two billions years ago. In many ways, this means that looking for Martian life is like looking for signs of life in Earth's distant past, so NASA reasons that places like the Outback could make very good laboratory for rehearsing future Mars missions.
"The Pilbara Outback is home to the oldest confirmed fossilized lifeforms on Earth, called stromatolites," says Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "If we can better understand how these fossils came to be here – and the nearby geological signposts that help point the way to them – we'll be that much more prepared when hunting for signs of life on Mars."
What the NASA/ESA/Roscosmos team led by Martin Van Kranendonk, professor of geology and astrobiology at the University of New South Wales were particularly interested in were stromatolites. These are colonies of bacteria that are made up of layers of microbes like cyanobacteria that form themselves into sheets, mounds, and columns. Many geological formations dating back to over 1.25 billion years ago resemble modern stromatolites, indicating that they were once one of the most common life forms on Earth.
"Just as the Apollo astronauts visited areas of geologic interest on Earth before they journeyed to the Moon, the scientists of Mars 2020 and ExoMars are doing their due diligence before their missions make the 100-million-plus-mile (160-million-plus-kilometer) trip to the Red Planet," says Mitch Schulte, Mars 2020 NASA program scientist. "Martin helped them by providing a thorough and thought-provoking look into the geologic features of the Pilbara."
The video below shows the team exploring the Outback.