Since 1997, if you wanted to send someone to Mars, but have had not had the technology to do so, your best alternative was Devon Island, in Nunavut. Because of the island’s geography, climate and remoteness, Nasa and other space outfits have deemed it a Mars analogue, one of several sites on Earth that are as close as we can come to conditions there. While the Nasa-funded Haughton-Mars Project was active, it temporarily housed several dozen people each summer looking into various aspects of humans might be able to survive on Mars.
As it turns out, another island in Nunavut may be able to shed light on a different life form that may exist (or may have existed) on Mars. In perhaps one of the most unlikely places on Earth where life exists, scientists say the Lost Hammer Spring on Axel Heiberg Island is an ideal analogue for the conditions bacteria on Mars would live in.
In a paper published in ISME, a journal, scientists with McGill University report the presence of a previously unidentified species of microbes under the permafrost at Lost Hammer Spring. The microbes reportedly eat and breathe simple inorganic compounds of a kind that have been detected on Mars (such as methane, sulfide, sulfate, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide).
What makes the ground under Lost Hammer Spring so Mars-like is its unfriendly combination of salt and cold temperatures. When the water that feeds the spring reaches the surface it is seven times saltier than sea water. This, however, has the benefit of allowing it to stay in a liquid state and maintain a stable temperature of -5°C. Such conditions are strikingly similar to those found in certain areas on Mars, where widespread salt deposits and possible cold salt springs have been observed.
Earlier studies have found evidence of microbes in this kind of Mars-like environment, and Lost Hammer Spring’s Martian properties have long been known, making it of interest for scientists looking for indicators of life not just on Mars but also Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn — both of which may also feature conditions that could support life.
What makes the McGill research stand apart is that it is one of the sole studies to find microbes alive and active in this type of environment, and, indeed it is so promising that sediment samples from Lost Hammer Spring were selected by ESA, a pan-European space agency, to test the life detection capabilities of the instruments they plan to use on an upcoming mission to Mars. Because, when it comes to space exploration, the mission, at least for now, is not to go where no-one has gone before, but where the bacteria already are.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
Featured image: McGill University
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