Water Worlds (10.09.03) - Research suggests that water on planets in other solar systems could be more common than originally believed.
Mars, Water and Life (05.19.04) - The Mars rover Opportunity has found signs that rocks at the newly discovered Endurance Crater may have been deposited in water. Meanwhile, scientists here are exploring life's watery origins on Earth.
To find life on Mars, you must either bring a sample back to a laboratory or find a way to take a lab to Mars. As this ScienCentral News video reports, researchers have found a way to shrink down a lab so it can go to Mars.
Are We Alone?
The clues continue to tantalize and inspire the imagination. Did life exist on Mars? Could simple bacteria still be there only a few feet deep in the soil? To find out for sure, scientists are either going to have to bring a sample of Martian soil here, or take a biology lab there.
University of California, Berkeley chemistry professor Richard Mathies likes the idea of sending a mini-lab there because, "I think sample return is going to take a very long time and it's going to be very expensive." Mathies has a personal reason as well, noting, "I'd actually like to make these measurements in my lifetime."
The chip, officially called the "Mars Organic Analyzer," will analyze soil for the chemical signs of life on the surface and hopefully, even a few inches deep into the Martian soil. It would be one of many devices to ride on the next generation of rovers, following the lead of Spirit and Opportunity, who have explored Mars for more than a year.
Mathies describes the chip, designed and built by graduate student Allison Skelley, as, "made up of four different layers — two layers of glass, a layer of plastic and another layer of glass that's used to control the valves and vents and reactors in the system."
There are lots of what scientists call "biomarkers" that could offer clues to life. Mathies wants to use the chip to search for amino acids because they, "are a key component on Earth as we know it and there are very good arguments that it should be a ubiquitous element in life on other planets."
The Mars Organic Analyzer
But, just finding amino acids is not enough. Scientists would look for a crucial characteristic found in the amino acids that make up life on Earth; they're all "chiral" molecules, which means they are not superimposable with their mirror images — like left and right hands. Amino acids can be made by processes other than life, but those all have left and right-handed versions of each other. A characteristic found in the 20 amino acids making up life on Earth is that they are all left-handed.
Mathies says, "If, for example on Mars we discover that there was a very, very large excess of, say, right handed amino acids that would really be undeniable proof that there was a unique form of life present on Mars."
But Mathies says the chip is a thousand times more sensitive than the method used by Viking, pointing out, "The technical capabilities that have been developed as a result of the biotechnology revolution over the past decade as well as the human genome project have dramatically enhanced our capabilities in making microanalysis systems."
Future trips will have an advantage Viking did not because rovers can both move and dig. Says Mathies, "If we can move to those spots and we can dig down and pull samples from those locations, then we have the wonderful possibility of actually finding some sort of life form on Mars."