Current state-of-the-art instruments sent to Mars to collect and analyze evidence of life may not be sensitive enough to make accurate estimates, according to a research team led by a Cornell University astronomer.
In a publication in nature communication, Visiting planetary scientist Alberto Fairén and an international team of researchers claim that ancient organic material in Martian rocks may be difficult, if not impossible, to detect with current instruments and techniques.
Fairén – also a research professor at the Center for Astrobiology (CAB) in Madrid – and colleagues conducted tests on sedimentary rocks found in the Red Stone Jurassic fossil delta in the Atacama Desert of northwestern Chile, the oldest and driest desert on earth popular geological analogue of Mars.
Researchers conducted geological tests at Red Stone using four instruments currently on or about to be on Mars. They found that the samples contained numerous microorganisms of indeterminate classification – what the researchers call the “dark microbiome” – and a mix of biosignatures from current and ancient microorganisms that are difficult to detect with state-of-the-art laboratory equipment.
This showed the researchers that the instruments sent to Mars might not be sensitive enough, depending on the instrument used and the organic compound being sought. “In particular, the possibility of getting false negatives when searching for life on Mars underscores the need for more powerful tools,” said lead author Armando Azua-Bustos, a research scientist in Fairén’s team at the CAB.
Either installing complex instruments on Mars, some 53 million miles away, or bringing Martian samples back to Earth is necessary to “conclusively establish whether life ever existed on Mars,” the researchers wrote. In this case, both options are extremely difficult, Fairén said.
“You have to decide whether it’s more beneficial to have a limited analysis capability on the Martian surface to study a variety of samples,” he said, “or to have a limited number of samples analyzed with the wide variety of cutting-edge technologies.” can. artistic instruments on earth.”
NASA is currently working with the European Space Agency and others to safely transport geological samples from Mars collected by the Perseverance rover to Earth. And Fairén said the first European Mars rover, named Rosalind Franklin, is also scheduled to launch as early as 2028.
“This European rover will carry a drill bit with an unprecedented ability to reach to depths of 2 meters (6½ feet) to analyze sediments that are better protected from the harsh conditions on the Martian surface,” he said. “If biosignatures are better preserved at depth, which we expect, there will be greater richness and diversity and better preservation of biosignatures in these deep samples.” Our instruments in the rover therefore have a better chance of detecting them.”