News / USA

Looking for ET

Scientists target tiny fossils in Martian soil in NASA's search for extraterrestrial life

A proposed robotic lab would carry instruments for identifying and measuring the chemical building blocks for life (as we know it), including thousands of carbon-carrying compounds, elements such as sulfur and nitrogen, and oxidation states of trace metal
A proposed robotic lab would carry instruments for identifying and measuring the chemical building blocks for life (as we know it), including thousands of carbon-carrying compounds, elements such as sulfur and nitrogen, and oxidation states of trace metal

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

They still haven't found any Martian microbes, or telltale signs of alien biospheres orbiting distant stars. But scientists looking for signs of life in our solar system and the universe beyond are not discouraged.

Researchers at the biennial Astrobiology Science Conference near Houston, Texas, described a series of ambitious new projects they say will continue the search for extraterrestrial life.  

Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Among them was Cornell University researcher Steve Squyres, chief scientist on the Mars Rover Mission for the U.S space agency, NASA.  

In a news briefing he told reporters that astrobiology will be central to future space exploration. "NASA is currently considering 28 different missions. They are sort of breathtaking in their sweep. They cover everything from Mercury landers to fly-bys of objects in the deep outer solar system."

Squyres says one of the most ambitious endeavors is a Mars Sample Return Mission, which would retrieve rocks and soil from the Martian surface in three stages.

NASA's Opportunity rover used its front hazard-identification camera to obtain this image at the end of a drive on the rover's 1,271st sol, or Martian day (Aug. 21, 2007).
NASA's Opportunity rover used its front hazard-identification camera to obtain this image at the end of a drive on the rover's 1,271st sol, or Martian day (Aug. 21, 2007).

A robotic ranger would collect samples. A lander would pick them up and then rendezvous with an orbiter to bring them back to Earth.  The project has been on the drawing boards for 20 years, but never acted on.  

But the search for life, Squyres suggests, is a long-term effort. "What we're saying is that it is possible to string those out in time, with gaps of potentially years. And what that does is that it makes the overall program more affordable because it spreads the cost out over time."

Exploration

Other astrobiology projects in the works include unmanned interplanetary orbiters that would use ice penetrating radar to look for a liquid ocean under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa, and to explore the methane lakes on Titan, a moon of Saturn.

The search for extraterrestrial life actually involves some Earth-centered science, too.

Artist rendering of a Mars Sample Return mission that would use robotic systems and a Mars ascent rocket to collect and send samples of Martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere to Earth for detailed chemical and physical analysis.
Artist rendering of a Mars Sample Return mission that would use robotic systems and a Mars ascent rocket to collect and send samples of Martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere to Earth for detailed chemical and physical analysis.

University of California Los Angeles paleobiologist Bill Schopf studies the oldest fossils on earth. He presented new data at the Astrobiology Science Conference that shows diverse micro-fossils found in a layer of gypsum in a 6 million-year-old Mediterranean Sea bed.  

Schopf says orbital mapping also shows similar mineral deposits on Mars. "We now know that this is a good place to look for evidence of fossil life on Mars, but I think that also you might see clumps of organic material and that would be a real good finding on Mars because if we can find the organic matter, then we have a real reason to think that there might once have been life there."

Life on Mars

As luck would have it, the Mars rover, named Opportunity, landed on a field of gypsum - or calcium sulfate six years ago.

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity climbed out of
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity climbed out of "Victoria Crater" following the tracks it had made when it descended into the 800-meter-diameter (half-mile-diameter) bowl nearly a year earlier.

NASA's Steve Squyres says Mars rocks and soil could yield valuable clues to ancient forms of life. "We know there are iron sulfates, magnesium sulfates and calcium sulfates.  Gypsum is a calcium sulfate. All of those are present at the Opportunity landing site."   

UCLA professor Bill Schopf is anxious to analyze those Martian sulfates for signs of life. "I think that if we had the rocks back tomorrow morning, and I had them in my lab, I think we could solve this problem.

Squyres says the discovery of water and organic materials - the building blocks of life as we know it on Earth - will be top priorities on NASA's future deep-space missions.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs