A recent experiment strengthens hope for life on Mars

international space station
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Our chances of finding life on Mars have vastly increased, thanks to a groundbreaking new experiment. Scientists have discovered that certain simple organisms that are found on Earth can safely survive Mars’ brutal conditions for months on end. They stuck a canister filled with microbes to the outside ISS (International Space Station), exposing them to cosmic radiation and the vacuum of space for 18 gruesome months. Some of the tiny creatures somehow survived, thus proving that similar life could be hiding out on the red planet.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne was quoted saying that some of the organisms and biomolecules have shown great resistance to radiation in the open space and even returned to Earth as ‘survivors’ of space.

He added that certain single-cell organisms would be the appropriate candidates for life forms that we could imagine on Mars. The result also adds credibility to the theory that life on Earth actually came from Mars. Experts think that our neighbor was home to microorganisms nearly 4 billion years ago and that an asteroid strike sent some chunks of Martian rocks flying into space. These chunks then collided with an early kind of our planet, depositing the microbes and leaving the foundations for all life on Earth. Scientists had already previously doubted whether any life could actually be able to survive the perilous trip from Mars, but the DLR study shows some organisms are more than proficient.

Terrestrial organisms that were stuck on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) have been able to survive 533 days in the vacuum, intense ultraviolet radiation, and extreme temperature variations of space.

Out of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars seems like the most likely candidate to host life. But it’s extremely inhospitable, dusty, scorched, and inferior in gravity and oxygen, and has harsh radiation due to its thin atmosphere. It is cold and wracked by dust storms that can plummet the planet into darkness.

We have yet to detect life there, but there are a few ways we can test how viable its presence is. One is searching for life on planets similar to mars for environments on Earth.

In the current German Aerospace Center (DLR) led experiment called BIOMEX,  organisms such as bacteria, algae, lichens and fungi were unprotected to Mars-like conditions aboard the space station.

We know, hypothetically, that Mars has a bunch of the things we know life practices, including an atmosphere, elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus, water ice, and maybe even liquid water.

Expose R2 in space
The Expose-R2 facility. (Roscosmos)

So, organisms were cultivated in Martian soil simulants. They were then placed outside the space station in the Expose-R2 facility.

Hundreds of samples were thereby included in the experiment, some with the soil simulant and a virtual Mars atmosphere to boot.

There they stayed for almost 18 months between 2014 and 2016 before being brought back down to Earth for further analysis.

None of the equipment sent to Mars so far has detected life or any divulging signs of it. But eloquent that it could exist there, and what kinds of organisms are most likely to survive – will help to develop tools that could detect life on future Mars missions.


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