Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and NASA are building a DNA detector to search for evidence of life on Mars.
MIT and NASA think rocks flying between Earth and the Red Planet may have contained micro-organisms capable of surviving the environments of both worlds. Researchers think finding DNA on Mars would likely indicate a shared ancestry between Earth and the Red Planet.
“At the time, there was something going on called the Late Heavy Bombardment, and meant the inner solar system was being hit with lots and lots of meteorites,” Dr. Alexandra Pontefract, a geologist at MIT working on the project, said in a press statement. “There was a big exchange of rocks between Mars and Earth. There have been studies that have shown biology can survive being ejected from a planet and survive in space. We know it’s possible; it’s really amazing.”
The DNA detector will begin field testing in Argentina later this month. Ultimately, scientists hope to send a DNA detector to Mars on a future rover or manned mission to determine if any potential Martian life would share an ancestry with Earth.
The earliest potential evidence of life on Earth is 3.5 billion years old, but evidence of potential life from before that period has mostly been destroyed by plate tectonics. However, primitive life could have been most suited to survive on Mars. The first multi-cellular animals did not appear on Earth until about 600 million years ago and were not diversified until roughly 542 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion.
“There is a really good argument for the fact that if there was life on Mars, it would have shared ancestry with Earth,” Pontefract continued. “That’s because back towards the origins of the solar system, between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, Earth and Mars had formed, and there is evidence they were both habitable at that point in time.”
Other research from NASA’s Curiosity rover determined there are craters on Mars today that were probably a habitable lake-and-stream system billions of years ago and included fresh neutral-pH water. Additionally, the Mars rover found complex minerals that were probably created in a relatively habitable environment.
These discoveries mean that the area was probably hospitable to microbial life for quite some time.
Research indicates that if life did exist on Mars, it would likely be relatively primitive, just like life on Earth during the same time period.
Scientists at the University of Texas published research in November that said some volcanic areas on Mars could be ideal chemical environment for life to develop and flourish even in the present day. Lava from volcanoes and ice from glaciers would combine to form a fairly warm environment by Martian standards that even has access to a lot of water ice, and potentially even liquid water.
Geologists announced in September that they found hydrogen, a critical component necessary to support life, can be produced by earthquakes on Earth. They concluded that the same kind of “Marsquakes” could produce hydrogen on Mars, removing a major barrier to life. The Red Planet’s atmosphere is rich in oxygen, so an ample supply of hydrogen could mean that water is more common on Mars than generally believed.
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