Researchers say ExoMars could detect bacteria on Mars—past or present

Sep 10, 2013 by Elizabeth Howell
An artist’s conception of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover, scheduled to launch in 2018. Credit: ESA

Signs of life on the Martian surface would still be visible even after bacteria were zapped with a potentially fatal dose of radiation, according to new research—if life ever existed there, of course.

Using "model" bacteria expected to resemble what microbes could look like on the Red Planet, the research team used a Raman spectrometer—an instrument type that the ExoMars rover will carry in 2018—to see how the signal from the bacteria change as they get exposed to more and more radiation.

The bottom line is the study authors believe the European Space Agency rover's instrument would be capable of seeing bacteria on Mars—from the past or the present—if the bacteria were there in the first place.

Readings from the NASA Mars Curiosity rover recently found that humans on the surface of Mars would have a higher risk of cancer due to the increased on the surface. Mars does not have a global magnetic field to deflect radiation from , nor a thick atmosphere to shelter the surface.

The new study still found the signature of life in these model microbes at 15,000 Gray of radiation, which is thousands of times higher than the that would kill a human. At 10 times more, or 150,000 Gray, the signature is erased.

"What we've been able to show is how the tell-tale signature of life is erased as the energetic radiation smashes up the cells' molecules," stated Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiology researcher at the University of Leicester who led the study.

ExoMars 2016 Mission to the Red Planet. It consists of two spacecraft – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) which will land. Credit: ESA

Specifically, the spectrometer detected carotenoid molecules, which can be used to protect a microorganism against difficult conditions in the environment. The research teams stated that these cartenoids have been proposed as "good biosignatures of life" on Mars.

"In this study we've used a bacterium with unrivaled resistance to radiation as a model for the type of bacteria we might find signs of on Mars. What we want to explore now is how other might be distorted or degraded by irradiation," Dartnell added. "This is crucial work for understanding what signs to look for to detect remnants of ancient life on Mars that has been exposed to the bombardment of cosmic radiation for very long periods of time."

No one is sure if Mars has life right now on its surface, or ever did in the past. The Mars Curiosity rover is equipped to look at past environmental conditions on the planet, but is not designed to look for life itself.

This image shows a river that sprang from a past glacier from an unnamed crater in Mars’ middle latitudes. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

Many scientists believe flowing water existed on the planet, though, based on rock findings from three NASA rovers and the appearance of channels, streams and perhaps even oceans as spotted by orbiting satellites. Some scientists say the atmosphere of Mars was much thicker in the past, but it then dissipated for reasons that are still being investigated. Water, however, does not necessarily point to life.

The research was presented at the European Planetary Science Congress on Monday. Universe Today has reached out to Dartnell to see if the work is peer-reviewed. His website lists several published research articles he wrote on similar topics.

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User comments : 9

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rug
1.9 / 5 (9) Sep 10, 2013
That would be so cool! To find life on Mars would be extremely interesting. To find a different form of life on Mars would be even better.
GSwift7
2.6 / 5 (5) Sep 10, 2013
What we want to explore now is how other signs of life might be distorted or degraded by irradiation,"


From the Dracula movie with Keaneu Reeves (the guy in the article above is renfield):

Doctor Jack Seward: What about sparrows?

Renfield: Oh, yes. Did you say sparrows?

Doctor Jack Seward: Something larger perhaps?

Renfield: Oh, yes. A kitten. I beg you. A little, sleek - a playful kitten. Something I can teach. Something I can feed. No one would refuse me a kitten.

Doctor Jack Seward: Wouldn't you prefer a cat?

Renfield: Oh, yes, a big cat! My salvation depends upon it!


I know, that's just wrong. Remember the hamster in the microwave thing, where the hamster curses you out when you press the buttons?

You know what would suck about finding signs of life in the above mentioned way? You wouldn't know if it was past or present. You'd just know that something was there at some point, and that's it.
rug
1.9 / 5 (9) Sep 10, 2013
You know what would suck about finding signs of life in the above mentioned way? You wouldn't know if it was past or present. You'd just know that something was there at some point, and that's it.


Sure, but that would also be huge! I'm sure as soon as life was known to be on Mars there would be another missions to really investigate it. Can't ignore it once it's found.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
3 / 5 (2) Sep 10, 2013
Carotenoids are terpenoids, which can be produced by bacteria but mostly isn't. I hear it protects leafs against blue light, not UV. So I wouldn't expect to find that molecule specifically.

@GS7: Since the surface is so oxidative from the UV irradiation, such organics wouldn't be long lived. So if we find them, chances is that it was recent or extant life. (Comes out to much the same thing seen over geological time.)
Captain Stumpy
1.9 / 5 (9) Sep 11, 2013
@GS7
http://www.joecartoon.com/ he also had the frog blender, my fav was the one called "Gone Fishin"

I hope you got it right, rug, and that if we find something, we actually step up the pace towards better investigation, or even manned exploration.
if I remember correctly, wasn't there also a possible "sign of life" that may have come from Mars in the early days... I want to say 76 Viking... then discounted.
Gilbert Levin, I think, and radioactive carbon emissions from the device on board, but NASA retracted. GCMS or something like that... in fact I think the GCMS was faulty, too... something like that.
anyone remember? I read about it, but I disremember the reasons it was retracted.
Requiem
2.3 / 5 (6) Sep 11, 2013
@GS7
http://www.joecartoon.com/ he also had the frog blender, my fav was the one called "Gone Fishin"

I hope you got it right, rug, and that if we find something, we actually step up the pace towards better investigation, or even manned exploration.
if I remember correctly, wasn't there also a possible "sign of life" that may have come from Mars in the early days... I want to say 76 Viking... then discounted.
Gilbert Levin, I think, and radioactive carbon emissions from the device on board, but NASA retracted. GCMS or something like that... in fact I think the GCMS was faulty, too... something like that.
anyone remember? I read about it, but I disremember the reasons it was retracted.


http://lmgtfy.com...ife+mars

rug
1.5 / 5 (8) Sep 11, 2013
@Captain - "The Viking landers conducted biological experiments designed to detect life in the Martian soil (if it existed) with experiments designed by three separate teams, under the direction of chief scientist Gerald Soffen of NASA. One experiment turned positive for the detection of metabolism (current life), but based on the results of the other two experiments that failed to reveal any organic molecules in the soil, most scientists became convinced that the positive results were likely caused by non-biological chemical reactions from highly oxidizing soil conditions."
http://en.wikiped..._program

There was also the Mars rock that showed some strange worm like shapes.
http://en.wikiped..._of_life
It was later discounted but it would seem the sketchy evidence is piling up and maybe some day real soon we will see something decisive.
GSwift7
2 / 5 (4) Sep 12, 2013
http://www.joecartoon.com/ he also had the frog blender, my fav was the one called "Gone Fishin


Yep. lol. That's the guy. Ever see his Hummer? He had a white H1 Hummer that had custom artwork on the fenders that looked like blood and hamster parts splattered around the tires and along the sides.
Captain Stumpy
1 / 5 (7) Sep 13, 2013
GSwift yes I did! LOVED IT! freakin hilarious! he still have it? I haven't been back in a while... maybe I should drop in again.

rug
Requiem
Thank you both... I looked it up here (at home) and found the same data you gave, and the same data from the link Requiem gave. I read it in a book titled "13 Things That Don't Make Sense" by Michael Brooks. it says the same pretty much... argues for and against the findings. makes me wonder...

(been on the road all day... just got home 2hrs ago... almost 500 miles today...whew!)