Scientists Say an 8-Mile-Deep Italian Cave May Be the Key to Finding Life on Mars
To prepare for missions to Mars, NASA tests out its tech in extreme locales like Death Valley, Calif., and Lake Vostok in Antarctica, but it turns out that the Frasassi Caves in Italy may be one of the best places to explore when it comes to the search for life on Mars.
New research published in the journal Astrobiology has shown that life leaves behind distinct biosignatures in rock formations, especially in cave environments like Frasassi. Using these biosignatures, scientists can identify past and present alien microorganisms on Mars—or other planets.
At the heart of the new research is gypsum, a mineral created in the weathering of the Frasassi caves.
Researchers found unique patterns of isotopes in gypsum that suggested that something special happened when it formed, and did some digging into how biology might have influenced the mineral.
They found that microbes can speed up the chemical reactions that form gypsum, especially when water is present. In the process, the microbes leave behind tiny clues to their presence in the form of isotopes, which are atoms with have the same number of protons and electrons, but different numbers of neutrons.
According to Jenn Macalady, one of the geoscientists associated with the study:
"If we were to find a similar environment on Mars, we could use this particular biosignature to test for the current or past presence of life. But I think more generally what we're suggesting is that anytime you have microbes on a surface and a fluid moving past, the rates of reaction that the microbes generate would allow you to see variation in a signature like isotopes. The research is exciting because it's not just an example. It's a general prescription for looking for evidence of life."
Armed with this knowledge, future Mars missions may make caves the first place to study when they land on the Red Planet. Luckily, NASA has already received a proposal for a shape-shifting robot that can explore caves, oceans, and anywhere else we need. If there are extraterrestrial microbes lurking in Martian caves, we'll find them.