Life On Mars Could Be Hiding In Plain Sight Under A 'Sunscreen'

Norman Byrd

Although humanity has played with the idea of life on Mars for centuries, the nagging mystery of whether or not it actually existed -- or is still extant -- is a constant driving force for study and exploration of the Red Planet. And with study after study pointing toward the existence of methane and water and other factors that suggest Mars once -- sometime in its past -- had the capability of sustaining life as we know it, there are also studies that provide optimal search areas. The latest such study indicates that life on Mars might not only be present and prevalent, living organisms could very well be as close as the nearest rock.

Seeker reported last week that SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute astrobiologist Janice Bishop has been working on the idea that iron oxides coating the surface of rocks on Mars just might be a "sunscreen" for microbial organisms. She developed the idea from work she did in the Mojave desert that turned into a 2011 study wherein Bishop presented findings of an iron oxide coating on carbonate rocks found in the desert. That study became an extension of a 2006 study she conducted where she posited that iron oxides were an "ultraviolet sunscreen" for ancient photosynthesis on Earth. The carbonates, which are thought to be strong indicators of the presence of liquid water, were found just below the coating.

"They were all hiding under this red mineral at the top, called hematite," Bishop told Seeker.

Hematite is also a common element on Mars.

Bishop, who is not only a senior research scientist, but chairs the astrobiology group at the SETI Institute, worked on the CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer) instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has now been taking high-resolution pictures and spectroscopic images of the Red Planet for more than a decade. The data collected has provided information on Mars' current surface, helping Bishop and other scientists attempt to decipher how the planet reached its present state.

Thus far, research done on hematite has produced valuable information on how life developed on Earth. For Mars, though, it is as yet unclear if it might have direct implications on the search for life. However, it is possible the information might lead to a better understanding of life in environments outside of Earth, including life on exoplanets.

Other scientists have worked on the idea of microbes evolving and surviving in a harsh ozone-less Earth, an environment like Mars today. Tina Gauger of the University of Tubingen suggested in a 2015 Geology paper that some strains of bacteria could have created protective iron oxide layers to survive their environment. Gauger's co-author, Kurt Konhauser, has extended the research, looking into such matters as the ancient iron cycle, how quickly microbes generate ferric oxide in different environments, and the role of photoplankton in transferring phosphorous to the sea floor.

Just last month, a study out of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville indicated that certain microbes could withstand the extreme pressures of Mars' current thin atmosphere. As reported by the Inquisitr, such survivability suggests that alien life not only could have existed on the Red Planet in the past, there is a possibility that it is extant today.

But does Janice Bishop hold out hope for life on present-day Mars? "It's kind of a stretch," she admitted.

Still, she continues to search...

Bishop noted that other scientists were of the opinion that microbial life might persist in areas on the Red Planet where briny water environments exist. Such places can be found in the recurring slope lineae that occur in craters on a seasonal basis and other sloped locations on Mars.

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