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Mars-Like Environment on Earth? Astrobiologists Descend Under for Extra-Terrestrial Studies

Aug 04, 2016 01:11 AM EDT
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New Prototype Rover For Lunar And Mars Missions Demonstrated
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 14: A soil sample taken by Axel, a research prototype rover for exploring the Moon, Mars and other planets, is poured from its vile as engineers from Jet Propulsion (JPL) and grad students from Caltech (California Institute of Technology) demonstrate its mobility over the steep and rocky grounds of the JPL Mars Yard on January 14, 2009 in Pasadena, California. The rover is capable of descending cliffs or into craters and returning by a cable tethered to its starting point. Development of the Axel rover is a point effort funded by NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and lead by Principal Investigator Issa Newnas and Co-Investigator and Caltech professor of mechanical engineering bio engineering Joel Burdick.
(Photo : Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

NASA has already set plans for their mission to Mars for 2018 and 2030. While NASA has gone under water for their preparation, one group of scientists has taken their studies of the red planet 1.1 kilometers below the earth. Scientists are hoping to identify extraterrestrial life in the Mars-like environment present on earth.

A program funded by the European Science Foundation, Mars Analogues for Space Exploration (MASE) researchers are heading below the surface of the earth. The location is in the North East coast of England's Boulby Mine, which is said to have the same environment as the red planet.

"In Boulby the rocks were formed around 250 million years ago, in a giant inland sea. We think the polygonal shapes are connected to the expansion of salt when the sea periodically dried out, similar to the processes we see in places like Death Valley in California today." said Charles Cockell, a professor at the U.K. Center for Astrobiology and the lead researcher on the MASE project.

The researchers will be studying and collecting Mars-like rock samples. In addition, the astrobiologists are studying rock formations that feature honeycomb-like hexagon patterns found deep in the mine. Such patterns were formed approximately 250 million years ago, which would help researchers know exactly where to look for signs of life once in Mars.

"These features are similar to some environments we see on Mars. We suspect that the rims contain clay, iron and organics and we want to test the hypothesis that they contain signatures of life," explained Cockell further.

The four-year research project is a collaborative study by the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme, which runs from January 2014 until December 2017. MASE is currently drafting the first scientific publication that will soon be publicly available on Open Access format before it will be disseminated to scientific databases.

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