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Mars exploration motivates the search for extraterrestrial life, the development of space technologies, and the design of human missions and habitations. Here, we seek new insights and pose unresolved questions relating to the natural history of Mars, habitability, robotic and human exploration, planetary protection, and the impacts on human society. Key observations and findings include:
– high escape rates of early Mars' atmosphere, including loss of water, impact present-day habitability;
– putative fossils on Mars will likely be ambiguous biomarkers for life;
– microbial contamination resulting from human habitation is unavoidable; and
– based on Mars' current planetary protection category, robotic payload(s) should characterize the local martian environment for any life-forms prior to human habitation.
Some of the outstanding questions are:
– which interpretation of the hemispheric dichotomy of the planet is correct;
– to what degree did deep-penetrating faults transport subsurface liquids to Mars' surface;
– in what abundance are carbonates formed by atmospheric processes;
– what properties of martian meteorites could be used to constrain their source locations;
– the origin(s) of organic macromolecules;
– was/is Mars inhabited;
– how can missions designed to uncover microbial activity in the subsurface eliminate potential false positives caused by microbial contaminants from Earth;
– how can we ensure that humans and microbes form a stable and benign biosphere; and
– should humans relate to putative extraterrestrial life from a biocentric viewpoint (preservation of all biology), or anthropocentric viewpoint of expanding habitation of space?
Studies of Mars' evolution can shed light on the habitability of extrasolar planets. In addition, Mars exploration can drive future policy developments and confirm (or put into question) the feasibility and/or extent of human habitability of space.
Raman spectrometry has been established as an instrument of choice for studying the structure and bond type of known molecules, and identifying the composition of unknown substances, whether geological or biological. This versatility has led to its strong consideration for planetary exploration. In the context of the ExoGeoLab and ExoHab pilot projects of ESA-ESTEC & ILEWG (International Lunar Exploration Working Group), we investigated samples of astrobiological interest using a portable Raman spectrometer lasing at 785 nm and discuss implications for planetary exploration. We find that biological samples are typically best observed at wavenumbers >1100 cm−1, but their Raman signals are often affected by fluorescence effects, which lowers their signal-to-noise ratio. Raman signals of minerals are typically found at wavenumbers <1100 cm−1, and tend to be less affected by fluorescence. While higher power and/or longer signal integration time improve Raman signals, such power settings are detrimental to biological samples due to sample thermal degradation. Care must be taken in selecting the laser wavelength, power level and integration time for unknown samples, particularly if Raman signatures of biological components are anticipated. We include in the Appendices tables of Raman signatures for astrobiologically relevant organic compounds and minerals.
Several space agencies and exploration stakeholders have a strong interest in obtaining information on technical and human aspects to prepare for future extra-terrestrial planetary exploration. In this context, the EuroGeoMars campaign, organized with support from the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG), the European Space Agency (ESA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center and partner institutes, was conducted by the crews 76 and 77 in February 2009 in The Mars Society's ‘Mars Desert Research Station’ (MDRS) in Utah.
The EuroGeoMars encompasses two groups of experiments: (1) a series of field science experiments that can be conducted from an extra-terrestrial planetary surface in geology, biology, astronomy/astrophysics and the necessary technology and networks to support these field investigations; (2) a series of human crew-related investigations on crew time organization in a planetary habitat, on the different functions and interfaces of this habitat, and on man–machine interfaces of science and technical equipment.
This paper recalls the objective of the EuroGeoMars project and presents the MDRS and its habitat layout. Social and operational aspects during simulations are described. Technical and operational aspects of biology investigations in the field and in the habitat laboratory are discussed in detail with the focus point set on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based detection of microbial DNA in soil samples.
We collected and analysed soil cores from four geologic units surrounding Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) Utah, USA, including Mancos Shale, Dakota Sandstone, Morrison formation (Brushy Basin member) and Summerville formation. The area is an important geochemical and morphological analogue to terrains on Mars. Soils were analysed for mineralogy by a Terra X-ray diffractometer (XRD), a field version of the CheMin instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission (2012 landing). Soluble ion chemistry, total organic content and identity and distribution of microbial populations were also determined. The Terra data reveal that Mancos and Morrison soils are rich in phyllosilicates similar to those observed on Mars from orbital measurements (montmorillonite, nontronite and illite). Evaporite minerals observed include gypsum, thenardite, polyhalite and calcite. Soil chemical analysis shows sulfate the dominant anion in all soils and SO4>>CO3, as on Mars. The cation pattern Na>Ca>Mg is seen in all soils except for the Summerville where Ca>Na. In all soils, SO4 correlates with Na, suggesting sodium sulfates are the dominant phase. Oxidizable organics are low in all soils and range from a high of 0.7% in the Mancos samples to undetectable at a detection limit of 0.1% in the Morrison soils. Minerals rich in chromium and vanadium were identified in Morrison soils that result from diagenetic replacement of organic compounds. Depositional environment, geologic history and mineralogy all affect the ability to preserve and detect organic compounds. Subsurface biosphere populations were revealed to contain organisms from all three domains (Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya) with cell density between 3.0×106 and 1.8×107 cells ml−1 at the deepest depth. These measurements are analogous to data that could be obtained on future robotic or human Mars missions and results are relevant to the MSL mission that will investigate phyllosilicates on Mars.
The search for evidence of past or present life on Mars will require the detection of markers that indicate the presence of life. Because deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is found in all known living organisms, it is considered to be a ‘biosignature’ of life. The main function of DNA is the long-term storage of genetic information, which is passed on from generation to generation as hereditary material. The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is a revolutionary technique which allows a single fragment or a small number of fragments of a DNA molecule to be amplified millions of times, making it possible to detect minimal traces of DNA. The compactness of the contemporary PCR instruments makes routine sample analysis possible with a minimum amount of laboratory space. Furthermore the technique is effective, robust and straightforward. Our goal was to establish a routine for the detection of DNA from micro-organisms using the PCR technique during the EuroGeoMars simulation campaign. This took place at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah in February 2009 (organized with the support of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG), NASA Ames and the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC)). During the MDRS simulation, we showed that it is possible to establish a minimal molecular biology lab in the habitat for the immediate on-site analysis of samples by PCR after sample collection. Soil and water samples were taken at different locations and soil depths. The sample analysis was started immediately after the crew returned to the habitat laboratory. DNA was isolated from micro-organisms and used as a template for PCR analysis of the highly conserved ribosomal DNA to identify representatives of the different groups of micro-organisms (bacteria, archaea and eukarya). The PCR products were visualized by agarose gel electrophoresis and documented by transillumination and digital imaging. The microbial diversity in the collected samples was analysed with respect to sampling depth and the presence or absence of vegetation. For the first time, we have demonstrated that it is possible to perform direct on-site DNA analysis by PCR at MDRS, a simulated planetary habitat in an extreme environment that serves as a model for preparation and optimization of techniques to be used for future Mars exploration.
Humankind's innate curiosity makes us wonder whether life is or was present on other planetary bodies such as Mars. The EuroGeoMars 2009 campaign was organized at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) to perform multidisciplinary astrobiology research. MDRS in southeast Utah is situated in a cold arid desert with mineralogy and erosion processes comparable to those on Mars. Insight into the microbial community composition of this terrestrial Mars analogue provides essential information for the search for life on Mars: including sampling and life detection methodology optimization and what kind of organisms to expect. Soil samples were collected from different locations. Culture-independent molecular analyses directed at ribosomal RNA genes revealed the presence of all three domains of life (Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya), but these were not detected in all samples. Spiking experiments revealed that this appears to relate to low DNA recovery, due to adsorption or degradation. Bacteria were most frequently detected and showed high alpha- and beta-diversity. Members of the Actinobacteria, Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes and Gemmatimonadetes phyla were found in the majority of samples. Archaea alpha- and beta-diversity was very low. For Eukarya, a diverse range of organisms was identified, such as fungi, green algae and several phyla of Protozoa. Phylogenetic analysis revealed an extraordinary variety of putative extremophiles, mainly Bacteria but also Archaea and Eukarya. These comprised radioresistant, endolithic, chasmolithic, xerophilic, hypolithic, thermophilic, thermoacidophilic, psychrophilic, halophilic, haloalkaliphilic and alkaliphilic micro-organisms. Overall, our data revealed large difference in occurrence and diversity over short distances, indicating the need for high-sampling frequency at similar sites. DNA extraction methods need to be optimized to improve extraction efficiencies.
Many scientific programs, most of them linked to stellar physics (such as asteroseismology, stellar rotational modulation, surface structures, Doppler imaging, Zeeman-Doppler imaging, variable stellar winds) require a continuous spectroscopic coverage during several days.
MUSICOS (for MUlti-SIte COntinuous Spectroscopy) is an international project for setting up a network of high resolution spectrometers coupled to telescopes of the 2m class, well distributed around the world, and partly dedicated to continuous spectroscopy.
The strategy to reach this objective was defined during two workshops organized at Paris-Meudon Observatory in 1988 and 1990, and consists of three steps: 1) organize multi-site spectroscopie campaigns using resident instruments on various telescopes around the world and transportable fiber-fed spectrographs where adequate spectroscopie equipment is not available; 2) design and develop a cross-dispersed echelle spectrograph, well suited for the scientific programs that require multi-site observations; 3) propose this MUSICOS spectrograph for duplication at several collaborating sites.
Stellar spectral diagnostics are of utmost importance to test fundamental concepts of flare physics such as particle beam versus suprathermal heating, atmospheric response, mass motions, microflaring, statistics and recurrence of flares, flare activity and stellar interior. We review some of these diagnostics (from photometry, optical, and ultraviolet spectroscopy at medium- and high-spectral resolution, X-ray, and radio observations). Specific diagnostics from line and continuum fluxes, density sensitive lines, broadening and velocity field effects and the comparison with semi-empirical models are also described.
Some results on stellar flares obtained from previous multi-wavelength observing campaigns are presented. Future satellite missions and ground-based observatories, with new techniques for obtaining high spectral and temporal resolution, are discussed in light of their possible contribution to our understanding of solar and stellar flares.
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