University scientists ask: is there life on Mars?

A group of Newcastle University experts, working in the newly opened Surface Engineering and Analysis Laboratory, have recently published findings which may further current research into the possibility of life on Mars.

The journal article covered their study into the organic compounds deposited along microscopic ‘tunnel’ structures, within basalt rocks found hundreds of metres below the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These ‘tunnels’ are believed to have been made by microbes potentially seeking nutrients or protection from predators, over 200 million years ago. Notably, the group’s results have provided the strongest evidence to date within the field that the structures have a biological origin.

“The technology will not just be limited to the exploration of life on other planets

Contributing author and geoscientist, Graham Purvis, suggested that the methods used for their experiment could be employed to look for signs of extra-terrestrial life. Purvis explained that “sub-oceanic basalt has very similar properties to that which we would expect to find on Mars”.

This is a timely development, with the European Space  Agency probe, Schiaparelli, scheduled to arrive at the surface of Mars on the 19th October of this year.

The project utilised state of the art equipment, including Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry and a £1.5 million Helium Ion Microscope, to “detect the trace left behind by living systems”, as explained by the head of the £7million laboratory, Professor Peter Cumpson. As the only microscope of its capability in the country, the resource was used to analyse surfaces to a incredibly high degree of accuracy, reaching a resolution of 10nm. This level of clarity is  five times better than available anywhere in the UK. Hence discovering the “biological fingerprint” left on the rocks, even after millions of years.

Purvis did identify the challenges ahead, pointing out that “the search for evidence of life on Mars is not an easy task because of the scarcity of pristine, uncontaminated Martian meteorite samples.”

However, Professor Cumpson described the possibilities as “huge and tremendously exciting”, as the technology will not just be limited to the exploration of life on other planets. He added that the techniques “have long been used in the electronics industry for fault-finding in semiconductor manufacture and processing.

“But the Helium Ion Microscope can be used for the first time for the analysis of soft materials – such as surface contaminations of needles, vials and medical implants, or for tracking drugs and where they end up in the body – so healthcare applications are growing strongly.”

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