Mysterious methane on Mars

Featuring image: northern rim of Gale Crater viewed by Curiosity. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, public domain (CC0)

Paper: Day-night differences in Mars methane suggest nighttime containment at Gale crater

Authors: C. R. Webster, P. R. Mahaffy, J. Pla-Garcia, S. C. R. Rafkin, J. E. Moores, S. K. Atreya, G. J. Flesch, C. A. Malespin, S. M. Teinturier, H. Kalucha, C. L. Smith, D. Viúdez-Moreiras and A. R. Vasavada

Methane is a gas often connected to life on Earth. NASA’s Mars rover reported the detection of methane, but discrepancies with other missions puzzled researchers. Is there methane on Mars or not? A new study tries to answer this question in a windy way.

Methane is a possible biosignature for extraterrestrial life and therefore, one of the goals of the Mars rover Curiosity was to search for methane. Curiosity was able to detect varying amounts of this gas over the years, but the existence of methane in the Martian atmosphere could not be confirmed by analysis from satellites. Now, Christopher Webster and his group were able to explain the variations as well as the discrepancy between ground-based and satellite analysis by developing a detailed model of the wind systems at Gale crater.

Continue reading “Mysterious methane on Mars”

The Search for Life on Mars Begins on Earth

Self portrait of NASA's Curiosity rover. Curiosity is currently climbing Moount Sharp, which can be seen rising on the right-hand side of the image, seeking signs that Mars have been a habitable planet in the past.

Article: Fatty Acid Preservation in Modern and Relict Hot-Spring Deposits in Iceland, with Implications for Organics Detection on Mars

Authors: Williams, Amy J., Kathleen L. Craft, Maëva Millan, Sarah Stewart Johnson, Christine A. Knudson, Marisol Juarez Rivera, Amy C. McAdam, Dominique Tobler, and John Roma Skok.

The quest to find signs of life on Mars is one of the greatest scientific challenges of our time. For some researchers, the quest is a chemical one. A search for the biomolecular remains of life that may have lived when Mars was warmer and wetter billions of years ago. However, finding and recognizing molecular fossils is no easy task, even for a rover as sophisticated as Curiosity. Now, new research from Dr. Amy Williams and her colleagues provides fresh insights into where Mars rovers should look for these fossils, what the signatures may look like, and a simple procedure for how to detect them.

Continue reading “The Search for Life on Mars Begins on Earth”

The only way is… down? Groundwater on Mars could support microbial life in the present day

Featured image: A person exploring the rocks of a cave on Earth, Pixabay.

Paper: Earth-like Habitable Environments in the Subsurface of Mars

Authors: J.D. Tarnas, J.F. Mustard, B. Sherwood Lollar, V. Stamenković, K.M. Cannon, J.-P. Lorand, T.C. Onstott, J.R. Michalski, O. Warr.

Mars exploration has been looking “up” recently: the Ingenuity helicopter performed the first powered flight on another planet, and veteran rover Curiosity gave us stunning images from the top of Mount Mercou. But if we want to look for life on Mars, it might be time for us to look down instead. New research suggests that life on present day Mars could be sustained by chemical energy produced through the interaction between water and rocks deep underground, like it is here on Earth.

Continue reading “The only way is… down? Groundwater on Mars could support microbial life in the present day”

Life on Mars: a non-traditional source for warmer waters

Hydrothermal vent on the right spewing water into a river on the left. Background has trees and sky. From Yellowstone National Park.

Article: Amagmatic hydrothermal systems on Mars from radiogenic heat

Authors: L. Ojha, S. Karunatillake, S. Karimi, and J. Buffo

Many people are familiar with Yellowstone National Park’s famous geyser, Old Faithful – but did you know that the heat fueling Old Faithful’s eruptions are from magma chambers that warm up underground fluids until they shoot out of the ground? Hydrothermal systems like this are found in other places, too, and can be fueled by different kinds of heat sources. In fact, scientists at Rutgers University have recently identified one such heat source – the heat generated by radioactive decay from certain chemical elements – that could help answer questions about whether liquid water, a critical component for life as we know it, could exist on Mars.

Continue reading “Life on Mars: a non-traditional source for warmer waters”

Oxia Planum: ExoMars 2022 Landing Site

Featured Image: Artist’s impression of ESA’s ExoMars rover ‘Rosalind Franklin’ on the surface of Mars. Credit: ESA.

Paper: Oxia Planum: The Landing Site for the ExoMars “Rosalind Franklin” Rover Mission: Geological Context and Prelanding Interpretation

Authors: Quantin-Nataf et al., 2021

We are entering a new dawn of Mars exploration: Perseverance rover touched down on Mars earlier this year, which marks the start of what will be a decade-long effort to return samples from Mars. In 2022 the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the ExoMars rover, which will team up with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) to find evidence of past or present life on Mars.

Continue reading “Oxia Planum: ExoMars 2022 Landing Site”

Prehistoric Microbial Meals Found in the Australian Outback

Featured Image: Rock fracture from the Dresser Formation, Australia. Fluid inclusions are trapped in the white stripes. Image courtesy Ser Amantio di Nicolao, used with permission.

Paper: Ingredients for microbial life preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old fluid inclusions

Authors: Helge Mißbach, Jan-Peter Duda, Alfons M. van den Kerkhof, Volker Lüders, Andreas Pack, Joachim Reitner, Volker Thiel

Just a few weeks ago NASA made a historic landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars.  This rover symbolizes our human drive for exploration and the need to find the origins of life to answer the big question—are we alone in the universe?  In addition to extraterrestrial investigation and research, we can address this fundamental question here on our own planet by digging into extreme environments that are analogs for ancient Earth or other planets.  These unusual environments, such as hydrothermal vents in our deepest oceans, boiling hot springs in Yellowstone, and prehistoric lakes in South America, can give us glimpses of ancient information and clues about to the ingredients of life.  By discovering our own origins of life, we can begin to understand how it may evolve on other planets.

Continue reading “Prehistoric Microbial Meals Found in the Australian Outback”

Tiny Crystals, Big Story: Time capsules from the Early Mars

Featured Image: Zircon grain under the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Image used with permission from Wikipedia (Emmanuel Roquette).

Article: The internal structure and geodynamics of Mars inferred from a 4.2-Gyr zircon record.

Authors: Maria M. Costa, Ninna K. Jensen, Laura C. Bouvier, James N. Connelly, Takashi Mikouchi, Matthew S. A. Horstwood, Jussi-Petteri Suuronen, Frédéric Moynier, Zhengbin Deng, Arnaud Agranier, Laure A. J. Martin, Tim E. Johnson, Alexander A. Nemchin, and Martin Bizzarro

While sitting in Geology 101 studying the geological time scale, most of us have gone through this experience where we imagined ourselves going back in time; visualizing mammoths passing by, dinosaurs hunting and fighting. But all these pictures start to become hazy and unclear when we reach close to 4 billion years. It is the time for which we have no rock records, and this is where zircons or what I would like to call “tiny survivors” comes in.

Continue reading “Tiny Crystals, Big Story: Time capsules from the Early Mars”

To P, not to P? That is (an oversimplification of) the biogeochemical question—

Paper: Unraveling biogeochemical phosphorus dynamics in hyperarid Mars‐analogue soils using stable oxygen isotopes in phosphate

Authors: Jianxun Shen, Andrew C. Smith, Mark W. Claire, Aubrey L. Zerkle

Many geologists believe that ancient Mars, with its warmer temperatures and water-rich environment, may have been home to life. To test this hypothesis, astrobiologists must find signifiers of life that can survive the billions of years of hyperaridity experienced on the Martian surface. One such method could be identifying biotic alteration of the geochemical cycling of phosphorus, as was highly publicized during the recent discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. Researchers have taken the first step in this search by characterizing biological phosphorus cycling in the analog environment of the Atacama Desert – an endeavor that has applied novel techniques in chemistry to provide insights about the movement of phosphorus in arid environments.

Continue reading “To P, not to P? That is (an oversimplification of) the biogeochemical question—”

How did valleys form on early Mars? Some say in ice…

Featured image: The Nirgal Vallis river valley on Mars as seen by the HRSC Camera onboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission. Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin.

Paper: Valley formation on early Mars by subglacial and fluvial erosion.

Authors: Anna Grau Galofre, A. Mark Jellinek & Gordon R. Osinski.

“Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in ice” begins the famous poem by Robert Frost. But what about how worlds begin? For years the theory of a “warm and wet” early Mars has been the conventional explanation for the vast valley networks formed billions of years ago that we can see on the surface today. Now, a new study suggests that at least some of these valleys could have formed under colossal ice sheets, in a distinctly more icy world.

Continue reading “How did valleys form on early Mars? Some say in ice…”

It’s LeviOsa, Not LevioSA: The Science Of Levitating Mud On Mars

Featured image: A mud volcano and mud flows in Azerbaijan. Credit: CAS/ Petr Brož/ CC BY-SA 4.0.

Paper: Mud flow levitation on Mars: Insights from laboratory simulations

Authors: Petr Brož et al.,

The Mariner spacecraft’s first images of Mars in the 1960s and 70s showed large volcanoes and flow features, most likely lava or mud. These features were largely interpreted to be lava flows because they look similar to those seen on Earth. However, a 2020 study by Brož et al., shows that mud flows may be more prevalent on Mars than first hypothesized. 

Continue reading “It’s LeviOsa, Not LevioSA: The Science Of Levitating Mud On Mars”