LE STUDIUM / Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow
In residence at
Dr Frances Westall
Analogues in the search for life on mars
This project concerns the search for traces of fossil life on Mars and is directly relevant for the forthcoming astrobiology missions to Mars, ExoMars 2020 and Mars 2020. It will answer the primordial questions: Are we alone? If there is (fossil) life on Mars, can we identify it? What would the discovery of life on Mars mean for the origin of life on Earth and, in general, the emergence of life in the Universe?
Martian life is most likely to have been (and may still be) very primitive, leaving, at most, the fossil traces of organisms similar to terrestrial anaerobic chemotrophs. Their biosignatures will be subtle, diluted by a mineral matrix, and easily confused by abiotic bacteriomorphs. Thus, information that can aid distinction bacteriomorphs from bona fide microbial fossils is of prime importance in the run-up to the missions for scientific testing of the payload instruments.
Within this timely, space mission context, my objectives are:
To study preserved biosignatures from a novel, Mars analogue environment, namely the volcanic, saline lakes of Djiboutian area of the Afar depression, an analogue for the surface of Mars during the Noachian/Hesperion eras (~4-3.5 Ga) using both tested methodologies, as well as a novel technique, a Helium Ion Microscope (HIM) coupled to ToF-SIMS analysis, thus providing unprecedented spatial resolution and co-localised chemical data.
To create a catalogue of Mars-relevant biosignatures in the form of a review article and a photographic textbook of biosignatures and Mars-analogue environments, for which there is an urgent and timely need to help prepare the scientists involved in the Mars 2020 and ExoMars 2020 missions.