Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 February 2011
Recently reported results from latest Mars Orbiters and Rovers missions are transforming our opinion about the red planet. That dry and inhospitable planet reported in the past is becoming a wetter planet with high probabilities of water existence in the past. Nowadays, some results seem to indicate the presence of water beneath the Mars surface. But also mineralogy studies by NASA Opportunity Rover report iron oxides and hydroxides precipitates on Endurance Crater. Sedimentary deposits have been identified at Meridiani Planum. These deposits must have generated in a dune aqueous acidic and oxidizing environment. Similarities appear when we study Rio Tinto, and acidic river under the control of iron.
The discovery of extremophiles on Earth widened the window of possibilities for life to develop in the Universe, and as a consequence on Mars and other planetary bodies with astrobiological interest. The compilation of data produced by the ongoing missions offers an interested view for life possibilities to exist: signs of an early wet Mars and rather recent volcanic activity as well as ground morphological characteristics that seem to be promoted by liquid water. The discovery of important accumulations of sulfates and the existence of iron minerals such as jarosite in rocks of sedimentary origin has allowed specific terrestrial models to come into focus. Río Tinto (Southwestern Spain, Iberian Pyritic Belt) is an extreme acidic environment, product of the chemolithotrophic activity of micro-organisms that thrive in the massive pyrite-rich deposits of the Iberian Pyritic Belt. Some particular protective environments should house the organic molecules and bacterial life forms in harsh environments such as Mars surface supporting microniches inside precipitated minerals or inside rocks. Terrestrial analogues could help us to afford the comprehension of habitability (on other planetary bodies).
We are reporting here the multidisciplinary study of some endolithic niches inside salt deposits used by phototrophs for taking advantage of sheltering particular light wavelengths. These acidic salts deposits located in Río Tinto shelter life forms that are difficult to visualize by eye. This interdisciplinary field analogue campaign was conducted in the framework of the CAREX FP7 EC programme.