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Tuesday, February 20, 2007



Exopaleontology the way to go on Mars?

The fossilized remains of Calothrix, a common bacterium in Yellowstone National Park hot springs
The fossilized remains of Calothrix, a common bacterium in Yellowstone National Park hot springs
Credit: Arizona State University, Jack D. Farmer
"Searching for extraterrestrial life must follow two alternative pathways, each requiring a different approach and tools," says Jack Farmer, a professor of geological sciences in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, where he heads the astrobiology program. "If we're looking for living organisms, we are doing exobiology. But if we are seeking traces -- biosignatures -- of ancient life, it's better to call it exopaleontology."

"[F]or the next 10 or 15 years, technology limitations [of rover drills] will force us down the exopaleontology path." "To find living organisms on Mars," says Farmer, "you need to find liquid water. Because liquid water is unstable on the Martian surface today, that means going deep into the subsurface."

To hunt Martian fossils, says Farmer, we will need robotic microscopic imagers capable of viewing rocks in many wavelengths as well as seeing details as small as a hundredth of a millimeter across. Also needed are organic chemistry laboratories to analyze promising rocks. "That will help us avoid mistaking non-biological features for biological ones," he says. He is currently running experiments in Iceland, New Zealand, Yellowstone National Park, and Mono Lake, Calif to see how microbes are preserved. "Studying how microbes become fossils is a key step in developing an effective strategy for exopaleontology," Farmer says. "It will help us find the best places to explore on Mars and how to look."

(More info: ASU)


- posted by Jim @ 20:38 EST