Life on Mars

Life on Mars

By building a Martian world right here on Earth, University of Winnipeg researchers are hoping to answer one burning question: Is there life on the Red Planet?
May 1, 2005
Is anyone out there?
 

That’s the question Edward Cloutis is asking as he begins simulating the surface of Mars at the University of Winnipeg’s Planetary Spectrometer Facility.

The facility consists of two small Mars boxes that mimic the surface conditions of Mars. The second part of the facility uses spectrometers to identify Martian minerals by using infrared wavelengths. Cloutis believes that if biological minerals that support life could exist, then perhaps that means living organisms on Mars.

“By measuring the light-reflecting properties of suspected Mars minerals under simulated Mars surface conditions, we can narrow down what types of minerals can be present on the Mars surface,” explains Edward Cloutis, a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Winnipeg. “The cheap way to determine what minerals are on Mars is by using telescopes on Earth. The expensive way is to send spacecraft up there, grab a sample, and bring it back to Earth. We’re trying to do it the cheap way.”

The two Mars boxes are affectionately named after characters from the Austin Powers movies. First there’s ME, which measures 3 x 2 x 2 feet—about the size of a kitchen oven. The second box, Mini ME, is a much smaller version, about the size of a peanut jar. Each structure has windows that enable researchers to observe the minerals in their Mars environment, which is considerably more hostile than Earth.

The Mars atmosphere is made of thin carbon dioxide. It also has temperatures that can hit well below minus 100 degrees Celsius at night, and reach plus 15 degrees by day. And since there is no ozone layer on Mars, many minerals decompose at a faster rate under harsh ultraviolet rays.

One of the first minerals that Cloutis and his research team are testing in the Mars boxes is clay, because it contains life-sustaining water. “We want to see if that water is actually going to stay in the clay when it’s hit by ultraviolet light and low atmospheric pressure,” says Cloutis. “Other minerals that could sustain life include iron-bearing sulfates and carbonates.”

Currently, spacecraft are limited when it comes to Mars. They can identify if minerals are on Mars, but they can't say with certainty what they are. That’s where the spectrometers come in. Two minerals may appear the same, but spectrometers, which work in infrared light that’s undetectable by human eyesight, can reveal if and how they are different. Once researchers determine which wavelength of light to use to identify a mineral in the lab, they can use that same wavelength on the Martian surface. That means they can search for evidence of life-supporting minerals—or maybe even signs of life.

“Spectra (wave lengths of light) are essentially mineral fingerprints,” says Michael Craig, a student research assistant who’s been working with Cloutis since 2000. He says that, just like humans, minerals have their unique fingerprints. However, mineral prints are relatively fragile under certain conditions, like those on Mars. “What we are doing is attempting to recreate the Martian environment in the lab so we can create more accurate fingerprints to compare to spectra obtained via telescope and/or spacecraft.”

Benefits 

The Spectrometer Facility at the University of Winnipeg can unlock mysteries about the Red Planet. But it can also answer questions about our own planet.

Although it’s a smaller planet than Earth, Mars is made up of similar materials. That’s because both planets evolved around the same time. “Mars is essentially the Earth’s little brother who lived fast and died young,” says Michael Craig. “By studying what happened to Mars, we are in essence studying what will happen when the Earth’s internal engine runs out of fuel.”

And up until now, Canadians have played a minor role in planetary research. The Planetary Spectrometer Facility will help put the Canadian Space Agency in touch with international planetary missions. Currently, there are no centres or research groups in Canada devoted to planetary surface materials.

The Facility will also bridge the information gap between spacecraft work in the field and lab work. “The only way to determine if certain minerals can survive on the surface of Mars, without actually bringing back a sample of the Martian surface, is to expose these suspected minerals to Mars surface conditions and see how they react,” says Edward Cloutis. The research can be fed to international space missions—such as the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission and even the NASA Mars Landers, Spirit and Opportunity.

And by simulating Mars surface conditions on Earth, researchers can help build and test instruments to be used on Mars under realistic conditions.

The Facility’s spectrometers can also be used for healthcare and environmental applications. The applications include developing new, low-cost instruments for testing water quality, and non-invasive monitoring of people’s health. “Because infrared light can penetrate the skin, it’s possible to view blood flow and measure other under-the-skin properties,” says Cloutis.

Partners

The Planetary Spectrometer Facility at the University of Winnipeg can support a number of different types of scientific investigations beyond Mars. This has attracted a number of partners—including MD Robotics, EMS Technologies, and MPB Communications—who intend to use the Mars boxes to design and test instruments they would like to put on spacecraft bound for Mars.

  • MD Robotics is responsible for many robotic applications, including lunar and planetary robotic rovers.
  • EMS Technologies in Montreal provides space components, such as antennas, and is developing a variety of instruments destined for future Mars missions.
  • MPB Communications uses fibre-optic technology for procedures such as non-invasive surgeries, and is developing compact spectrometers for future Mars missions.