Scots scientist seeks critters below surface of Mars

Nasa's Curiosity Mars rover at work. Picture: Nasa
Nasa's Curiosity Mars rover at work. Picture: Nasa
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A SCOTTISH scientist has pinpointed what he believes is the best location to investigate whether there is life on Mars.

Professor John Parnell, 55, a geochemist at the University of Aberdeen, believes the best chance of finding signs of life lie in the huge McLaughlin Crater on the surface of the red planet.

His research, co-written a theory with Dr Joseph Michalski, a planetary geologist at the Natural History Museum and published yesterday in Nature Geoscience journal, describes how they assessed the crater, created by a meteorite which smashed into Mars, throwing up rocks from miles below.

The rocks appear to be made up of clays and minerals which have been altered by water – the essential element to support life.

“We could be so close to discovering if there is, or was, life on Mars,” Prof Parnell said.

“We know from studies that a substantial proportion of all life on Earth is also in the subsurface and by studying the McLaughlin Crater we can see similar conditions beneath the surface of Mars thanks to observations on the rocks brought up by the meteorite strike.

“There can be no life on the surface of Mars because it is bathed in radiation and it’s completely frozen. However, life in the sub surface would be protected from that.

“There is no reason why there isn’t bacteria or other microbes that were or still are living in the small cracks well below the surface of Mars.

“One of the other things we have discussed in our paper is that this bacteria could be living off hydrogen, which is exactly the same as what microbes beneath the surface of the Earth are doing, too.

“Unfortunately, we won’t find any evidence of animals as the most complex life you might get in the sub surface would be fungi.

“But fungi aren’t even that far removed from plants and animals, so I think you could say that life on Mars could be complex, but small.”

Prof Parnell said that although the next mission to Mars will have a drill to examine possibilities of life beneath the surface of Mars, his new study suggests looking around the edges of craters would be easier and more beneficial.

He said: “What we’re really doing is emphasising that if we are going to explore for life on Mars, we need to go beneath the surface. So, we need to find an approach beneath the surface.

“One approach to do that might be to drill and indeed the next European mission to Mars will have a drill on it, but that will only go down about two metres.

“And although drilling two metres would be a fantastic technological achievement, it’s only really scratching the surface.”

While the craters on Mars may uncover secrets about the planet’s possibility of supporting life, Prof Parnell also revealed the results could show us how life on Earth began.

He said: “It’s very easy to draw parallels between what Mars looks like and what the early Earth might have looked like, because the rocks on Earth that we see now have been recycled a lot in ways that they have not been recycled on Mars.”