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Present day Mars habitability analogue environments on Earth

From Astrobiology

Present day Mars habitability analogue environments on Earth are environments that share potentially relevant astrobiological conditions with Mars. These include analogues of potential surface habitats, deep subsurface habitats, and subsurface hydrothermal systems (which may exist on Mars though not yet detected). It excludes sites that are thought to be analogues only of conditions on early Mars, geological analogues, or analogues used only for testing engineering details for landing systems and rovers.[1] For analogues more generally see Terrestrial Analogue Sites.

A few places on Earth, such as the hyper-arid core of the high Atacama desert and the McMurdo dry valleys in Antarctica approach the dryness of current Mars surface conditions. In some parts of Antarctica, the only water available is in films of brine around permafrost. There is life in these hyper arid locations, but it is rare, in low numbers, and often hidden below the surface of rocks (endoliths), making the life hard to detect. The hyper arid core of the Atacama desert is often used for testing the sensitivity of future life detection instruments for Mars. Other analogues duplicate some of the conditions that may occur in particular locations on Mars. These include ice caves, the icy fumaroles of Mount Erebus, hot springs, or the sulfur rich mineral deposits of the Rio Tinto region in Spain.

Euronews - Is there life out there? We head to 'Mars on Earth' [in Rio Tinto to find out]

Other analogues include regions of deep permafrost and high alpine regions with plants and microbes adapted to aridity, cold and UV radiation with similarities to Mars conditions.[1][2]

These Mars analogue environments are used for furthering the study of astrobiology. For instance, they are used for testing life detection instruments to be sent to Mars, as a source for species to be tested for their ability to survive on Mars, and as a way to study how Earth life copes in conditions that resemble conditions on Mars. They may also give us some insight into adaptations that native Mars life could use to survive.

Precision of analogues[edit | hide all | hide | edit source]

Mars surface conditions are not exactly reproduced anywhere on Earth so Earth surface analogues for Mars are necessarily partial analogues. Some Earth cave and deep subsurface analogues may be more exact analogues of Mars surface conditions (apart from the levels of gravity), if similar conditions occur on Mars. Here are some of the most significant differences between Earth and Mars surface conditions, with remarks on Mars' closest analogues on Earth:

  • Ionizing radiation. Curiosity measured levels on Mars similar to the interior of the International Space Station (ISS), which is far higher than surface Earth levels - however adaptations for desiccation resistance also give some Earth microbes high levels of ionizing radiation resistance - they can repair single and double breaks of their DNA within hours using the example of still intact DNA to repair breaks in the damaged DNA.[3][4] Also ionizing radiation levels on the surface of Mars are low enough so that it is not considered a habitability factor for present day life there, though it is limiting for dormant life.[5][6]
  • Atmosphere. The Mars atmosphere is a near vacuum while Earth's is not. However, as a result of desiccation resistance, some lifeforms can survive even the vacuum of space in dormant states, and Mars simulation experiments show that some Earth microbes can metabolize in the near vacuum conditions of Mars.[4][7][8][9][10] Also this only applies to life directly exposed to the Mars atmosphere. For instance life in brine habitats on Mars, if they exist, may only need to be able to survive in dormant states when directly exposed to the Mars atmosphere.
  • UV levels. UV levels on Earth, even in the polar regions and at higher altitudes where UV levels are much higher, are generally much lower than on Mars. Some life adapted to Earth UV can survive in conditions of partial shade in Mars simulation experiments, or protected from the UV by a thin layer of dust or other covering.[7]
  • Oxidizing surface. The Mars has a surface layer which is highly oxidized and oxidizing compared to Earth because it contains salt deposits consisting of perchlorates, chlorates, cholorites, and sulfates, perchlorates pervasive in the soil and dust,[11][12] and hydrogen peroxide throughout the atmosphere.[13] Though Earth's crust is also oxidized, with most of the iron in the form of rust in the Banded iron formations, it is not nearly as oxidized as Mars, which contains chlorides, sulfides, and no hydrogen peroxide. The oxygen produced by plants and algae is not sufficient to put Earth into the extreme oxidation state of Mars. Earth does however have some areas though that are highly oxidizing, such as the soda lakes, and though not direct analogues, they create conditions that may be duplicated in thin films of brines on Mars. Earth even has some perchlorates, the most oxidized state, in its deserts, with an estimated 100,000 to 3,000,000 tonnes (110,000 to 3,310,000 tons) "global inventory".[14] It also has microbes that can use pechlorates as a food source, producing oxygen as a byproduct.[15][16][17]
  • Temperature. Nowhere on Earth reproduces the extreme changes in temperature that happen within a single day on Mars.
  • Dry ice. The Mars surface consists of dry ice in many areas. Even in equatorial regions, dry ice mixed with water forms frosts for about 100 days of the year. On Earth, although temperatures on Earth briefly get cold enough for dry ice to form in the Antarctic interior at high altitudes, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere is too low for dry ice to form because the depositional temperature for dry ice on Earth under 1 bar of pressure is −140 °C (−220 °F)[18] and the lowest temperature recorded in Antarctica is −94.7 °C (−138.5 °F), recorded in 2010 by satellite.[19]

These partial analogues are still very useful, for instance for:[2]

  • Testing life detection equipment which may one day be sent to Mars
  • Studying conditions for preservation of past life on Mars
  • Studying adaptations to conditions similar to those that may occur on Mars
  • As a source of microbes, lichens etc. for experiments to test the possibilities of Earth life that could survive in Mars habitats if they exist.

Atacama desert arid core[edit | hide | edit source]

The Atacama desert plateau lies at an altitude of 3,000 meters and lies between the Pacific and the Andes mountains. Its Mars like features include

  • Hyper arid conditions
  • Cold compared to most arid deserts because of the altitude
  • High levels of UV light (because it is relatively cloudless, also the higher altitude means less air to filter the UV out, and the ozone layer is somewhat thinner above sites in the southern hemisphere than above corresponding sites in the northern hemisphere[20][21])
  • Salt basins, which also include perchlorates making them the closest analogues to Martian salts on Earth.[1]

Yungay area[edit | hide | edit source]

Atacama Desert is located in South America
Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert (South America)

The Yungay area at the core of the Atacama desert used to be considered the driest area on Earth for more than a decade, until the discovery that Maria Elena South is drier in results published in 2015.[22][23] It can go centuries without rainfall, and parts of it have been hyper-arid for 150 million years. The older regions in this area have salts that are amongst the closest analogues of salts on Mars because these regions have nitrate deposits that contain not only the usual chlorides, but also sulfates, chlorates, chromates, iodates, and perchlorates.[24] The infrared spectra are similar to the spectra of bright soil regions of Mars.[1]

The Yungay area has been used for testing instruments intended for future life detection missions on Mars, such as the Sample Analysis at Mars instruments for Curiosity, the Mars Organic Analyzer for ExoMars, and Solid3 for Icebreaker Life, which in 2011, in a test of its capabilities, was able to find a new "microbial oasis" for life two meters below the surface of the Atacama desert.[24][25][26] It is the current testing site for the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) project to improve technology and strategies for life detection on Mars.[27][28]

Experiments conducted on Mars have also been successfully repeated in this region. In 2003, a group led by Chris McKay repeated the Viking Lander experiments in this region and got the same results as those of the Viking landers on Mars: decomposition of the organics by non biological processes. The samples had trace elements of organics, no DNA was recovered, and extremely low levels of culturable bacteria.[29] This led to increased interest in the site as a Mars analogue.[30]

Although hardly any life, including plant or animal life, exists in this area,[1] the Yungay area does have some microbial life, including cyanobacteria, both in salt pillars, as a green layer below the surface of rocks, and beneath translucent rocks such as quartz.[30][31][32] The cyanobacteria in the salt pillars have the remarkable ability to take advantage of the moisture in the air at low relative humidities. They begin to photosynthesize when the relative humidity rises above the deliquescence relative humidity of salt, at 75%, presumably making use of deliquescence of the salts.[31] Researchers have also found that cyanobacteria in these salt pillars can photosynthesize when the external relative humidity is well below this level, taking advantage of micropores in the salt pillars which raise the internal relative humidity above the external levels.[33] [34]

Maria Elena South[edit | hide | edit source]

This site is even drier than the Yungay area. It was found through a systematic search for drier regions than Yungay in the Atacama desert, using relative humidity data loggers set up from 2008 to 2012, with the results published in 2015.[22] The relative humidity is the same as the lowest relative humidity measured by Curiosity.[23]

A 2015 paper reported [22] an average atmospheric relative humidity 17.3%, and soils relative humidity a constant 14% at depth of 1 meter, which corresponds to the lowest humidity measured by Curiosity on Mars. This region's maximum atmospheric relative humidity is 54.7% compared with 86.8% for the Yungay region.

The following living organisms were also found in this region:

There was no decrease in the numbers of species as the soil depth increased down to a depth of one meter, although different microbes inhabited different soil depths. There was no colonization of Gypsum, showing the extreme dryness of the site.

No archaea was detected in this region using the same methods that detected archaea in other regions of the Atacama desert. The researchers said that if this is confirmed in studies of similarly dry sites, it could mean that "there may be adry limit for this domain of life on Earth"[22]

McMurdo dry valleys in Antarctica[edit | hide | edit source]

McMurdo Dry Valleys is located in Antarctica
McMurdo Dry Valleys
McMurdo Dry Valleys
McMurdo Dry Valleys (Antarctica)
Researchers scout out field sites in Antarctica's Beacon Valley, one of the most Mars-like places on Earth. Image credit: NASA

These valleys lie on the edge of the Antarctic plateau. They are kept clear of ice and snow by fast katabatic winds that blow from the plateau down through the valleys. As a result, they are amongst the coldest and driest areas in the world.

The central region of Beacon Valley is considered to be one of the best terrestrial analogues for the current conditions on Mars. There is snowdrift and limited melting around the edges and occasionally in the central region, but for the most part, moisture is only found as thin films of brine around permafrost structures. It has slightly alkaline salt rich soil.[35][36]

Katabatic winds

Don Juan pond[edit | hide | edit source]

This small pond in Antarctica, 100 meters by 300 meters, and 10 cm deep, is of great interest for studying the limits of habitability for present day life on Mars.

Research using a time lapse camera shows that it is partly fed by deliquescing salts revealing dark tracks that resemble the Recurrent Slope Lineae on Mars. The salts absorb water by deliquescence only, at times of high humidity, then flows down the slope as salty brines. These then mix with snow melt, which feeds the lake. The first part of this process may be related to the processes that form the Recurring Slope Lineae (RSLs) on Mars.[37][38]

It has an exceptionally low water activity of 0.3 to 0.6. Though microbes have been cultivated from it, they have not been shown to be able to reproduce in the salty conditions present in the lake, and it is possible that they only got there through being washed in by the rare occasions of snow melt feeding the lake. If this turns out to be the case, it may possibly be the only natural water body of any size without indigenous life on the Earth. For details, see Lowest water activity level for life on Mars.

Blood Falls[edit | hide | edit source]

Blood Falls seeps from the end of the Taylor Glacier into Lake Bonney. The tent at left provides a sense of scale
A schematic cross-section of Blood Falls showing how subglacial microbial communities have survived in cold, darkness, and absence of oxygen for a million years in brine water below Taylor Glacier.

This unusual flow of melt water from below the glacier gives scientists access to an environment they could otherwise only explore by drilling (which would also risk contaminating it). The melt water source is a subglacial pool of unknown size which sometimes overflows. Biogeochemical analysis shows that the water is marine in source originally. One hypothesis is that the source may be the remains of an ancient fjord that occupied the Taylor valley in the tertiary period. The ferrous iron dissolved in the water oxidizes as the water reaches the surface, turning the water blood red.[39]

Its autotrophic bacteria metabolize sulfate and ferric ions.[40][41] According to geomicrobiologist Jill Mikucki at the University of Tennessee, water samples from Blood Falls contained at least 17 different types of microbes and almost no oxygen.[40] An explanation may be that the microbes use sulfate as a catalyst to respire with ferric ions and metabolize the trace levels of organic matter trapped with them. Such a metabolic process had never before been observed in nature.[40] This process is of astrobiological importance as an analogue for environments below the Glaciers on Mars, if there is any liquid water there, for instance through hydrothermal melting (though none such has been discovered yet).[42][43] This process is also an analogue for cryovolcanism in icy moons such as Enceladus. Subglacial environments in Antarctica need similar protection protocols to interplanetary missions.

"7. Exploration protocols should also assume that the subglacial aquatic environments contain living organisms, and precautions should be adopted to prevent any permanent alteration of the biology (including introduction of alien species) or habitat properties of these environments.

28. Drilling fluids and equipment that will enter the subglacial aquatic environment should be cleaned to the extent practicable, and records should be maintained of sterility tests (e.g., bacterial counts by fluorescence microscopy at the drilling site). As a provisional guideline for general cleanliness, these objects should not contain more microbes than are present in an equivalent volume of the ice that is being drilled through to reach the subglacial environment. This standard should be re-evaluated when new data on subglacial aquatic microbial populations become available".[44]

Blood Falls was used as the target for testing IceMole in November 2014. This is being developed in connection with the Enceladus Explorer (EnEx) project by a team from the FH Aachen in Germany. The test returned a clean subglacial sample from the outflow channel from Blood Falls.[45] Ice Mole navigates through the ice by melting it, also using a driving ice screw, and using differential melting to navigate and for hazard avoidance. It is designed for autonomous navigation to avoid obstacles such as cavities and embedded meteorites, so that it can be deployed remotely on Encladus. It uses no drilling fluids, and can be sterilized to suit the planetary protection requirements as well as the requirements for subglacial exploration. The probe was sterilized to these protocols using hydrogen peroxide and UV sterilization. Also, only the tip of the probe samples the liquid water directly.[39][46]

Qaidam Basin in Tibet[edit | hide | edit source]

Qaidam is located in China
Qaidam
Qaidam
Location of Qaidam in China

"Geologist, sedimentation expert and Mars Science Laboratory team member David Rubin of the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center investigates longitudinal dunes in China's Qaidam Basin."[47]

At 4500 meters (nearly 15,000 feet), it is the plateau with highest average elevation on the Earth. The atmospheric pressure is 50% - 60% of sea level pressures, and as a result of the thin atmosphere it has high levels of UV radiation, and large temperature swings from day to night. Also, the Himalayas to the South block humid air from India, making it hyper arid.

In the most ancient playas (Da Langtang) at the north west corner of the plateau, the evaporate salts are magnesium sulfates (sulfates are common on Mars). This combined with the Mars like conditions make it an interesting analogue of the Martian salts and salty regolith. An expedition found eight strains of halobacteria inhabiting the salts, similar to some species of Virgibacillus, Oceanobacillus, Halobacillus, and Ter-ribacillus.[48]

Mojave Desert[edit | hide | edit source]

Mojave Desert map

The Mojave Desert is a desert within the United States which is often used for testing Mars rovers.[49] It also has useful biological analogues for Mars.

  • The arid conditions and chemical processes are similar to Mars.[2]
  • Has extremophiles within the soils.[2]
  • Desert varnish similar to Mars.[2][50]
  • Carbonate rocks with iron oxide coatings similar to Mars - niche for microbes inside and underneath the rocks, protected from the sun by the iron oxide coating, if microbes existed or exist on Mars they could be protected similarly by the iron oxide coating of rocks there.[51]

Other deserts of astrobiological interest for present day Mars[edit | hide | edit source]

  • Namib Desert - oldest desert, life with limited water and high temperatures, large dunes and wind features[2]
  • Ibn Battuta Centre Sites, Morocco - several sites in the Sahara desert that are analogues of some of the conditions on present day Mars, and used for testing of ESA rovers and astrobiological studies.[2][52]

Axel Heiberg Island (Canada)[edit | hide | edit source]

Gypsum Hill is located in Nunavut
Gypsum Hill
Gypsum Hill
Location of Gypsum Hill in Canada
Gypsum Hill is located in Arctic
Gypsum Hill
Gypsum Hill
Location of Gypsum Hill in the Arctic region

Two sites of special interest: Colour Peak and Gypsum Hill, two sets of cold saline springs on Axel Heiberg Island that flow with almost constant temperature and flow rate throughout the year. The air temperatures are comparable to the McMurdo dry valleys, range -15 °C to -20 °C (for the McMurdo dry valleys -15 °C to -40 °C). The island is an area of thick permafrost with low precipitation, leading to desert conditions. The water from the springs has a temperature of between -4 °C and 7 °C. A variety of minerals precipitate out of the springs including gypsum, and at Colour Peak crystals of the metastable mineral ikaite (CaCO
3
·6H
2
O
) which decomposes rapidly when removed from freezing water.[53]

"At these sites permafrost, frigid winter temperatures, and arid atmospheric conditions approximate conditions of present-day, as well as past, Mars. Mineralogy of the three springs is dominated by halite (NaCl), calcite (CaCO
3
), gypsum (CaSO
4
·2 H2O), thenardite (Na
2
SO
4
), mirabilite (Na
2
SO
4
·10H
2
O
), and elemental sulfur (S°).[54]

Some of the extremophiles from these two sites have been cultured in simulated Martian environment, and it is thought that they may be able to survive in a Martian cold saline spring, if such exist.[55]

Colour Lake Fen[edit | hide | edit source]

This is another Mars analogue habitat in Axel Heiberg Island close to Colour Peak and Gypsum Hill. The frozen soil and permafrost hosts many microbial communities that are tolerant of anoxic, acid, saline and cold conditions. Most are in survival rather than colony forming mode. Colour Lake Fen is a good terrestrial analogue of the saline acidic brines that once existed in the Meridani Planum region of Mars and may possibly still exist on the martian surface. Some of the microbes found there are able to survive in Mars-like conditions.[1]

"A martian soil survey in the Meridiani Planum region found minerals indicative of saline acidic brines. Therefore acidic cryosol/permafrost habitats may have once existed and are perhaps still extant on the martian surface. This site comprises a terrestrial analogue for these environments and hosts microbes capable of survival under these Mars-like conditions"[1]

Rio Tinto in Spain[edit | hide | edit source]

Rio Tinto is located in Spain
Rio Tinto
Rio Tinto
Rio Tinto (Spain)
This is the largest known sulfide deposit in the world, the Iberian Pyrite Belt[56] (IPB).

Riotintoagua

Many of the extremophiles that live in these deposits are thought to survive independently of the sun. This area is rich in iron and sulfur minerals such as

  • hematite (Fe
    2
    O
    3
    ) which is common in the Meridiani Planum area of Mars explored by Opportunity and though to be signs of ancient hot springs on Mars.
Jarosite, on quartz
  • jarosite (KFe3+
    3
    (OH)
    6
    (SO
    4
    )
    2
    ), discovered on Mars by Opportunity and on Earth forms either in acid mine drainage, during oxidation of sulphide minerals, and during alteration of volcanic rocks by acidic, sulphur-rich fluids near volcanic vents[57]

This makes it an excellent analogue of a Mars subsurface habitat.

Río Tinto, a terrestrial analogue of Mars - Ricardo Amils, Professor of Microbiology, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Permafrost soils, e.g. in Siberia[edit | hide | edit source]

Much of the water on Mars is permanently frozen, mixed with the rocks. So terrestrial permafrosts are a good analogue. And some of the Carnobacterium[58] species isolated from permafrosts have the ability to survive under the conditions of the low atmospheric pressures, low temperatures and CO
2
dominated anoxic atmosphere of Mars.[59]

Icy fumarole towers of Mount Erebus[edit | hide | edit source]

Mount Erebus is located in Antarctica
Mount Erebus
Mount Erebus
Map of Antarctica showing location of Mount Erebus

These ice fumaroles occur near the summit of Mount Erebus on Ross Island in Antarctica. If these occur on Mars, then they would provide a warm environment, high water vapor saturation, and partial UV shielding. The examples on Earth lack significant amounts of liquid water. However, they do have close to 100% humidity inside, and are able to sustain microbial communities of oligotrophs, i.e. micro-organisms that can survive in nutrient poor environments.[60][61][62]

For photographs of ice fumaroles see "Ice Towers and Caves of Mount Erebus".[63] Similar habitats may possibly exist on Mars and the ice would make them hard to detect from orbit.

The caves on Erebus are of especial interest for astrobiology as most surface caves are influenced by human activities, or by organics from the surface brought in by animals (e.g. bats) or ground water. The caves at Erebus. are high altitude, yet accessible for study. There is almost no chance of photosynthetic based organics, or of animals in a food chain based on photosynthetic life, and no overlying soil to wash down into them.

They are dynamical systems that collapse and rebuild, but persist over decades. The air inside the caves has 80% to 100% humidity, and up to 3% CO
2
, and some CO and H
2
, but almost no CH
4
or H
2
S
. Many of them are completely dark, so are unable to support photosynthesis. Organics can only come from the atmosphere, or from ice algae that grow on the surface in summer, which may eventually find their way into the caves through burial and melting. As a result, most micro-organisms there are chemolithoautotrophic i.e. microbes that get all of their energy from chemical reactions with the rocks, and that do not depend on any other lifeforms to survive. The organisms survive using CO
2
fixation and it has been hypothesized that some use CO oxidization for the metabolism. The main types of microbe found there are Chloroflexi and Acidobacteria.[62][64][65]

They may be of astrobiological significance for Mars. If Mars is currently active, in icy regions, then it may form similar ice fumaroles, and if so they would be only a few degrees higher in temperature than the surrounding landscape and hard to spot from orbit.[34]

Home Plate on Mars, explored by Spirit is thought to be an example of an ancient fumarole on Mars.

Ice caves[edit | hide | edit source]

Ice caves, or ice preserved under the surface in cave systems protected from the surface conditions, may exist on Mars.[66]

The ice caves near the summit of Mt. Erebus (Antarctica) associated with the fumaroles are dark, in a polar alpine environments starved in organics and with oxygenated hydrothermal circulation in highly reducing host rock.[62][64]

As well as analogues of ice fumaroles on Mars, if they exist, they may also be useful analogues for hydrothermally heated ice caves on Mars more generally if they exist.

Cave systems[edit | hide | edit source]

There are several almost enclosed ecosystems below the surface of the Earth, in cave habitats, which are especially good analogues for Mars as similar environments might exist there. And the mines give access to deep subsurface environments which turn out to be inhabited on the Earth, and may possibly exist on Mars.[67]

Penelope Boston - Subsurface Astrobiology: Cave Habitat on Earth, Mars, and Beyond

Basaltic lava tube caves[edit | hide | edit source]

The only caves found so far on Mars are lava tube caves. These are insulated to some extent from surface conditions and may retain ice also when there is none left on the surface, and may have access to chemicals such as hydrogen from serpentization to fuel chemosynthetic life. Lava tubes on Earth have microbial mats, and mineral deposits inhabited by microbes. These are being studied to help with identification of life on Mars if any of the lava tube caves there are inhabited.[68][69]

Lechuguilla Cave[edit | hide | edit source]

First of the terrestrial sulfur caves to be investigated as a Mars analogue for sulfur based ecosystems that could possibly exist underground also on Mars.[70] On Earth, these form when hydrogen sulfide from below the cave meets the surface oxygenated zone. As it does so, sulfuric acid forms, and microbes accelerate the process.[71]

The high abundance of sulfur on Mars combined with presence of ice, and trace detection of methane suggest the possibility of sulfur caves below the surface of Mars like this.[72]

Cueva de Villa Luz[edit | hide | edit source]

Cueva de Villa Luz is located in Mexico
Cueva de Villa Luz
Cueva de Villa Luz

The Snottites in the toxic sulfur cave Cueva de Villa Luz flourish on Hydrogen Sulfide gas and though some are aerobes (though only needing low levels of oxygen), some of these species (e.g. Acidianus), like those that live around hydrothermal vents, are able to survive independent of a source of oxygen. So the caves may give insight into subsurface thermal systems on Mars, where caves similar to the Cueva de Villa Luz could occur.[73][74][75]

Movile Cave, Romania[edit | hide | edit source]

Movile Cave is located in Romania
Movile Cave
Movile Cave
  • Isolated from the atmosphere and sunlight for 5.5 million years.[67]
  • Atmosphere rich in H
    2
    S
    and CO
    2
    with 1% - 2% CH
    4
    (methane)
  • It does have some oxygen, 7-10% O
    2
    in the cave atmosphere, compared to 21% O
    2
    in air
  • Microbes rely mainly on sulfide and methane oxidation.
  • Has 33 vertebrates and a wide range of indigenous microbes.

Magnesium sulfate lakes[edit | hide | edit source]

Crystals of Meridianiite, formula Magnesium sulfate 11 hydrate MgSO
4
·11H
2
O
. Evidence from orbital measurements show that this is the phase of Magnesium sulfate which would be in equilibrium with the ice in the Martian polar and sub polar regions[76] It also occurs on the Earth, for instance in Basque Lake 2 in Western Columbia, which may give an analogue for Mars habitats
Vugs on Mars which may be voids left by Meridianiite when it dissolved or dehydrated

Opportunity found evidence for magnesium sulfates on Mars (one form of it is epsomite, or "Epsom salts"), in 2004.[77] Curiosity has detected calcium sulfates on Mars.[78] (Curiosity is currently exploring ancient deposits at the base of Mount Sharp. It won't reach the youngest Magnesium Sulfate deposits towards the summit of Mt. Sharp until towards the end of its extended mission if that goes ahead[79]). Orbital maps also suggest that hydrated sulfates may be common on Mars. The orbital observations are consistent with iron sulfate or a mixture of calcium and magnesium sulfate.[80]

So magnesium sulfate is a likely component of cold brines on the planet, especially with the limited availability of subsurface ice. Terrestrial magnesium sulfate lakes have similar chemical and physical properties. They also have a wide range of halophilic organisms, in all the three Kingdoms of life (Archaea, Bacteria and Eukaryota), in the surface and near subsurface.[81] With the abundance of algae and bacteria, in alkaline hypersaline conditions, they are of astrobiological interest for both past and present life on Mars.

These lakes are most common in Western Canada, and the northern part of Washington state, USA. One of the examples, is Basque Lake 2 in Western Columbia, which is highly concentrated in magnesium sulfate. In summer it deposits epsomite ("Epsom salts"). In winter, it deposits meridianiite. This is named after Meridiani Planum where Opportunity rover found crystal molds in sulfate deposits (Vugs) which are thought to be remains of this mineral which have since been dissolved or dehydrated. It is preferentially formed at subzero temperatures, and is only stable below 2 °C,[82] while Epsomite (MgSO
4
·7H
2
O
) is favored at higher temperatures.[83][84][85]

Spotted Lake is located in Canada
Spotted Lake
Spotted Lake
Location of Spotted Lake in Canada

Another example is Spotted Lake, which shows a wide variety of minerals, most of them sulfates, with sodium, magnesium and calcium as cations.

"Dominant minerals included blöedite Na
2
Mg(SO
4
)
2
·4H
2
O
, konyaite Na
2
Mg(SO
4
)
2
·5H
2
O
, epsomite MgSO
4
·7H
2
O
, and gypsumCaSO
4
·2H
2
O
, with minor eugsterite, picromerite, syngenite, halite, and sylvite",[86]

Spotted Lake close-up

Though many of the experiments use these lakes as an analogue for ancient Mars, some researchers also have investigated them as an analogue to explore the possibility of microbes that could inhabit cold magnesium sulfate rich brines in present-day Mars. Some of the microbes isolated have been able to survive the high concentrations of magnesium sulfates found in martian soils, also at low temperatures that may be found on Mars.[87][87][88][89]

Sulfates (for instance of sodium, magnesium and calcium) are also common in other continental evaporates (such as the salars of the Atacama desert), as distinct from salt beds associated with marine deposits which tend to consist mainly of halites (chlorides).[90]

Subglacial lakes[edit | hide | edit source]

Lake Vostok drill 2011

Subglacial lakes such as Lake Vostok may give analogues of Mars habitats beneath ice sheets. In 2001, Duxbury et al. suggested that processes similar to the ones that maintain Lake Vostok liquid could work on Mars.

Sub glacial lakes are kept liquid partly by the pressure of the depth of ice, but that contributes only a few degrees of temperature rise. The main effect that keeps them liquid is the insulation of the ice blocking escape of heat from the interior of the Earth, similarly to the insulating effect of deep layers of rock. As for deep rock layers, they don't require extra geothermal heating below a certain depth.

In the case of Mars, the depth needed for geothermal melting of the basal area of a sheet of ice is 4-6 kilometers. The ice layers are probably only 3.4 to 4.2 km in thickness for the north polar cap. However, Duzbury et al. showed that the situation is different if you consider a lake that is already melted. When they applied their model to Mars, they showed that a liquid layer, once melted (initially open to the surface of the ice), could remain stable at any depth over 600 meters even in absence of extra geothermal heating.[91]

So, according to their model, if the polar regions had a subsurface lake perhaps formed originally through friction as a subglacial lake at times of favourable axial tilt, then supplied by accumulating layers of snow on top as the ice sheets thickened, they suggest that it could still be there. If so, it could be occupied by similar lifeforms to those that could survive in Lake Vostok.[92]

Ground penetrating radar could detect these lakes because of the high radar contrast between water and ice or rock. MARSIS, the ground penetrating radar on ESA's Mars Express is our best instrument for the job. After several searches, it hasn't found anything yet.[93] Their resolution isn't that great, however, around a kilometer. We can say that Mars doesn't seem to have an equivalent of our Lake Vostok (250 km by 50 km by 0.43 km deep) at present. It could still have small subglacial lakes of up to a kilometer or so in diameter.

Subsurface life kilometers below the surface[edit | hide | edit source]

Investigations of life in deep mines, and drilling beneath the ocean depths may give an insight into possibilities for life in the Mars Hydrosphere and other deep subsurface habitats, if they exist.

Mponeng gold mine in South Africa[edit | hide | edit source]

Mponeng gold mine is located in South Africa
Mponeng gold mine
Mponeng gold mine
Location of Mponeng Gold mine in South Africa
  • bacteria that get their energy from hydrogen oxidation linked to sulfate reduction, living independent of the surface[67]
  • nematodes feeding on those bacteria, again living independent of the surface.
  • 3 to 4 km depth

Boulby Mine on the edge of the Yorkshire moors[edit | hide | edit source]

  • 250 million year halite (chloride) and sulfate salts[67]
  • High salinity and low water activity
  • 1.1. km depth
  • Anaerobic microbes that could survive cut off from the atmosphere

Alpine and permafrost lichens[edit | hide | edit source]

In high alpine and polar regions, lichens have to cope with conditions of high UV fluxes low temperatures and arid environments. This is especially so when the two factors, polar regions and high altitudes are combined. These conditions occur in the high mountains of Antarctica, where lichens grow at altitudes up to 2,000 meters with no liquid water, just snow and ice. Researchers described this as the most Mars-like environment on the Earth.[94]

References[edit | hide | edit source]

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  5. Joanna Carver and Victoria Jaggard (21 November 2012). "Mars is safe from radiation – but the trip there isn't". New Scientist. 
  6. Rummel, John D.; Beaty, David W.; Jones, Melissa A.; Bakermans, Corien; Barlow, Nadine G.; Boston, Penelope J.; Chevrier, Vincent F.; Clark, Benton C.; de Vera, Jean-Pierre P.; Gough, Raina V.; Hallsworth, John E.; Head, James W.; Hipkin, Victoria J.; Kieft, Thomas L.; McEwen, Alfred S.; Mellon, Michael T.; Mikucki, Jill A.; Nicholson, Wayne L.; Omelon, Christopher R.; Peterson, Ronald; Roden, Eric E.; Sherwood Lollar, Barbara; Tanaka, Kenneth L.; Viola, Donna; Wray, James J. (2014). "A New Analysis of Mars "Special Regions": Findings of the Second MEPAG Special Regions Science Analysis Group (SR-SAG2)" (PDF). Astrobiology. 14 (11): 887–968. Bibcode:2014AsBio..14..887R. doi:10.1089/ast.2014.1227. ISSN 1531-1074. 
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  8. Jean-Pierre de Vera Lichens as survivors in space and on Mars Fungal Ecology Volume 5, Issue 4, August 2012, Pages 472–479
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  10. F.J. Sáncheza, E. Mateo-Martíb, J. Raggioc, J. Meeßend, J. Martínez-Fríasb, L.Ga. Sanchoc, S. Ottd, R. de la Torrea The resistance of the lichen Circinaria gyrosa (nom. provis.) towards simulated Mars conditions—a model test for the survival capacity of an eukaryotic extremophile Planetary and Space Science Volume 72, Issue 1, November 2012, Pages 102–110
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  14. DuBois, Jennifer L.; Ojha, Sunil (2015). "Chapter 3, Section 2.2 Natural Abundance of Perchlorate on Earth". In Peter M.H. Kroneck and Martha E. Sosa Torres. Sustaining Life on Planet Earth: Metalloenzymes Mastering Dioxygen and Other Chewy Gases. Metal Ions in Life Sciences. 15. Springer. p. 49. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-12415-5_3. 
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  16. CHANG, KENNETH (October 5, 2015). "Mars Is Pretty Clean. Her Job at NASA Is to Keep It That Way". 
  17. Chang, Kenneth (October 5, 2015). "Mars Is Pretty Clean. Her Job at NASA Is to Keep It That Way". New York Times. 
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  21. Wierzchos, Jacek; DiRuggiero, Jocelyne; Vítek, Petr; Artieda, Octavio; Souza-Egipsy, Virginia; Škaloud, Pavel; Tisza, Michel; Davila, Alfonso F.; Vílchez, Carlos; Garbayo, Inés; Ascaso, Carmen (2015). "Adaptation strategies of endolithic chlorophototrophs to survive the hyperarid and extreme solar radiation environment of the Atacama Desert". Frontiers in Microbiology. 6. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2015.00934. ISSN 1664-302X. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Azua-Bustos, Armando; Caro-Lara, Luis; Vicuña, Rafael (2015). "Discovery and microbial content of the driest site of the hyperarid Atacama Desert, Chile" (PDF). Environmental Microbiology Reports: n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/1758-2229.12261. ISSN 1758-2229. 
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  24. 24.0 24.1 Parro, Victor; de Diego-Castilla, Graciela; Moreno-Paz, Mercedes; Blanco, Yolanda; Cruz-Gil, Patricia; Rodríguez-Manfredi, José A.; Fernández-Remolar, David; Gómez, Felipe; Gómez, Manuel J.; Rivas, Luis A.; Demergasso, Cecilia; Echeverría, Alex; Urtuvia, Viviana N.; Ruiz-Bermejo, Marta; García-Villadangos, Miriam; Postigo, Marina; Sánchez-Román, Mónica; Chong-Díaz, Guillermo; Gómez-Elvira, Javier (2011). "A Microbial Oasis in the Hypersaline Atacama Subsurface Discovered by a Life Detector Chip: Implications for the Search for Life on Mars". Astrobiology. 11 (10): 969–996. Bibcode:2011AsBio..11..969P. doi:10.1089/ast.2011.0654. ISSN 1531-1074. PMC 3242637Freely accessible. 
  25. The Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, The Open University (5 December 2012). "TN2: The Catalogue of Planetary Analogues, section 2.6.1" (PDF). Under ESA contract: 4000104716/11/NL/AF. Very little active biological material can be recovered from the soils of the hyperarid zone. Plant activity is zero and only limited bacterial species are recovered (of questionable activity) Endolithic cyanobacteria colonise halite rocks, but not quartz and the varnish present on some rocks has been recently shown to be microbial in origin. The prime astrobiological characteristic is the extreme aridity and the long-term climatic stability that has allowed the build-up of unique compounds. Terrestrial biological processes do not operate in the soil and so this site is a prime analogue of the microbial environment present on the Martian surface.

    The infrared spectra of soils in the Yungay region have been shown to be similar to the spectra of bright soil regions on Mars. Many soil analysis instruments are tested at the Yungay region or using Yungay soil samples. These include the Mars Organic Analyzer designed for the European ExoMars project, which has been successfully tested at Yungay and the Sample Analysis at Mars instruments for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission. In addition to providing soil samples for analogous analysis the region has been used as a model for remote Martian exploration in order to test a rover performing a biological survey
     
  26. Microbial oasis discovered beneath the Atacama Desert, PUBLIC RELEASE: 16 FEB 2012, FECYT - SPANISH FOUNDATION FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
  27. "Mars rover tests driving, drilling and detecting life in Chile's high desert". Nasa Astrobiology Magazine. Mar 17, 2017. 
  28. "NASA Tests Life-Detection Drill in Earth's Driest Place". NASA Press Release. February 26, 2016. 
  29. Navarro-Gonzalez, R. (2003). "Mars-Like Soils in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and the Dry Limit of Microbial Life". Science. 302 (5647): 1018–1021. Bibcode:2003Sci...302.1018N. doi:10.1126/science.1089143. ISSN 0036-8075. 
  30. 30.0 30.1 Azua-Bustos, Armando; Urrejola, Catalina; Vicuña, Rafael (2012). "Life at the dry edge: Microorganisms of the Atacama Desert". FEBS Letters. 586 (18): 2939–2945. doi:10.1016/j.febslet.2012.07.025. ISSN 0014-5793. 
  31. 31.0 31.1 Osano, A., and A. F. Davila. "Analysis of Photosynthetic Activity of Cyanobacteria Inhabiting Halite Evaporites of Atacama Desert, Chile." Lunar and Planetary Institute Science Conference Abstracts. Vol. 45. 2014.
  32. Bortman, Henry (Jun 22, 2006). "Journey to Yungay". Astrobiology Magazine (NASA). 
  33. Wierzchos, J.; Davila, A. F.; Sánchez-Almazo, I. M.; Hajnos, M.; Swieboda, R.; Ascaso, C. (2012). "Novel water source for endolithic life in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert" (PDF). Biogeosciences. 9 (6): 2275–2286. Bibcode:2012BGeo....9.2275W. doi:10.5194/bg-9-2275-2012. ISSN 1726-4189. 
  34. 34.0 34.1 The Ice Towers of Mt. Erebus as analogues of biological refuges on Mars, N. Hoffman and P. R. Kyle, Sixth International Conference on Mars (2003)
  35. McKay, Christopher P. (2008). "Snow recurrence sets the depth of dry permafrost at high elevations in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica" (PDF). Antarctic Science. 21 (01): 89. doi:10.1017/S0954102008001508. ISSN 0954-1020. [permanent dead link] "On Earth, dry permafrost is only found in the arid upland regions of Antarctica (Bockheim et al. 2007) but it has also been shown to be present on Mars (Mellon & Jakosky 1993, Mellon et al. 2004). Ice-cemented ground in the polar regions of Mars may hold clues to the biological history of that planet (Smith & McKay 2005) and are therefore SNOW RECURRENCE SETS DRY PERMAFROST 93 a target for current (Smith et al. 2008) and future missions. On Mars, snow recurrence may occur on timescales set by annual cycles near the polar caps, but in the mid-latitudes it may be on timescales set by obliquity cycles of many thousands of years. In the polar regions obliquity cycles may result in a persistent snow cover for extended periods of time. Unlike the Dry Valleys, Mars has two condensable species, CO
    2
    as well as H
    2
    O
    , and trapping of H
    2
    O
    in CO
    2
    ice may alter the boundary condition associated with “snow” in significant ways.

    The upper elevations of the Antarctic Dry Valleys are the best terrestrial analogue to conditions of ground ice on Mars. Thus, studies of the factors that control the distribution of dry permafrost in Antarctica may provide a basis for understanding its distribution on Mars - another arid polar environment."
  36. The Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, The Open University (December 5, 2012). "TN2: The Catalogue of Planetary Analogues, section 1.6.3" (PDF). Under ESA contract: 4000104716/11/NL/AF. Beacon valley is extremely dry and cold but still hosts microbe populations in the permafrost (Gilichinsky et al., 2007), crypotendoliths in sandstone rocks and boulders and endoliths in translucent granite surface rocks (Cowan et al., 2010). The soil of the central region is a dry permafrost sublimation dominated ecosystem. Snowdrift and limited melting increase soil moisture and microbial activity on the periphery, and occasionally in the central region. However in general the only available moisture is found as saline thin films around permafrost structures. The soil is salt rich and slightly alkaline.

    "The centre of Beacon valley is part of the stable upland zone and represents the best terrestrial analogue for current Martian conditions (McKay, 2009), particularly around polar regions where yearly snow fall or drift adds a modicum of soil moisture. The sublimation polygons are excellent models for similar structures in the Martian polar regions (Levy et al., 2010) as are the rock glaciers (Levy et al., 2011). As a test of the similarity of environments and the panspermia hypothesis microbes harvested form Beacon valley were exposed to space and then grown in Martian simulator
     
  37. Dickson, James L.; Head, James W.; Levy, Joseph S.; Marchant, David R. (2013). "Don Juan Pond, Antarctica: Near-surface CaCl2-brine feeding Earth's most saline lake and implications for Mars". Scientific Reports. 3. Bibcode:2013NatSR...3E1166D. doi:10.1038/srep01166. ISSN 2045-2322. 
  38. Stacey, Kevin (February 7, 2013). "How the world's saltiest pond gets its salt - describing the research of Jay Dickson and Jim Head". 
  39. 39.0 39.1 Dachwald, Bernd; Mikucki, Jill; Tulaczyk, Slawek; Digel, Ilya; Espe, Clemens; Feldmann, Marco; Francke, Gero; Kowalski, Julia; Xu, Changsheng (2014). "IceMole: a maneuverable probe for clean in situ analysis and sampling of subsurface ice and subglacial aquatic ecosystems". Annals of Glaciology. 55 (65): 14–22. Bibcode:2014AnGla..55...14D. doi:10.3189/2014AoG65A004. ISSN 0260-3055. 
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  45. Brabaw, Kasandra (April 7, 2015). "IceMole Drill Built to Explore Saturn's Icy Moon Enceladus Passes Glacier Test". Space.com. 
  46. ANDERSON, PAUL SCOTT (February 29, 2012). "Exciting New 'Enceladus Explorer' Mission Proposed to Search for Life". Universe Today. 
  47. China's Qaidam Basin Landscape Similar with Mars - USGS
  48. Wang, A., et al. "Saline Playas on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau as Mars Analog for the Formation-Preservation of Hydrous Salts and Biosignatures." AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts. Vol. 1. 2010.
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  55. The Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, The Open University (5 December 2012). "TN2: The Catalogue of Planetary Analogues" (PDF). Under ESA contract: 4000104716/11/NL/AF. Both Colour Peak and Gypsum Hill show clear evidence of microbial activity. This includes H
    2
    S
    gas, microbial mats and filaments on sediment surfaces in some spring pools and channels. At Gypsum Hill there are iron oxide deposits with a microbial sheen. Overall the microbial communities are primarily anoxic, cold and hyper salinity resistant sulphur metabolisers though this only characterises the greater part of a diverse community...

    "There is some mineralogical evidence for spring activity on Mars, well away from any thermal source. Therefore the data and models of the Gypsum Hill and Colour Peak have been used to analyse the Mars data and propose the existence of cold Martian springs (Andersen et al., 2002). In addition, some of the extremophiles catalogued at the spring sites are considered capable of surviving in a hypothetical Martian cold saline spring and so have been cultured in a simulated Martian environment (Pollard et al., 2009). Therefore, these sites represent a close terrestrial analogue to a Martian environment with promising astrobiological properties"
     
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    2
    -dominated anoxic atmosphere (A), called here collectively low-PTA conditions. Because much of the water on present-day Mars exists in a permanently frozen state mixed with mineral matrix, terrestrial permafrosts are considered to be analogs of the martian environment. We therefore screened Siberian permafrost soils for microbes capable of growing under low-PTA conditions. Using this approach we reported the isolation of 6 Carnobacterium spp. isolates from Siberian permafrost that were capable of low-PTA growth"
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  65. Tebo, Bradley M.; Davis, Richard E.; Anitori, Roberto P.; Connell, Laurie B.; Schiffman, Peter; Staudigel, Hubert (2015). "Microbial communities in dark oligotrophic volcanic ice cave ecosystems of Mt. Erebus, Antarctica". Frontiers in Microbiology. 6. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2015.00179. ISSN 1664-302X. Paraphrase of: "The Mt. Erebus ice caves are at high altitude in one of the most remote and oligotrophic environments on Earth and represent an excellent accessible model system for understanding fundamental microbe-mineral interactions contributing to the subsurface biosphere. This environment ensures that they are highly oligotrophic with almost no potential for the introduction of photosynthesis-based organic matter from invading animals or wash-down of organics from overlying soils. Mt. Erebus ice caves are moist, relatively warm habitats (on average ~0°C,) that persist over decades even though they are dynamic systems with cycles including collapse and post-collapse re-building. Sub-glacial fumaroles issue air-dominated gasses with 80–100% humidity and up to 3% CO
    2
    . The volcano source gas emissions, some of which may be entrained in the fumaroles, contain CO and H
    2
    , but are essentially devoid of CH
    4
    and H
    2
    S
    . Many of the caves are completely dark and therefore unable to support photosynthesis. In these DOVEs the only possible sources of organic carbon are from atmospheric deposition or ice algae that may grow on the surface of the ice during summer and subsequently be introduced into the caves through burial from above and melting from below. Thus, Mt. Erebus DOVEs provide an ideal ecosystem to study chemolithoautotrophic microorganisms that, in other cave and basaltic environments, would be masked by heterotrophic and photosynthetic organism biomass. Consequently they may shed new insights into the role of volcanoes and volcanic emissions in supporting life."
     
  66. Williams, K.E.; McKay, Christopher P.; Toon, O.B.; Head, James W. (2010). "Do ice caves exist on Mars?" (PDF). Icarus. 209 (2): 358–368. Bibcode:2010Icar..209..358W. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2010.03.039. ISSN 0019-1035. 
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  76. Peterson, R.C.; Nelson, W.; Madu, B.; Shurvell, H.F. (2007). "Meridianiite: A new mineral species observed on Earth and predicted to exist on Mars". American Mineralogist. 92 (10): 1756–1759. Bibcode:2007AmMin..92.1756P. doi:10.2138/am.2007.2668. ISSN 0003-004X. 
  77. Bortman, Henry (Mar 3, 2004). "Evidence of Water Found on Mars". Astrobiology Magazine (NASA). 
  78. Nachon, M.; Clegg, S. M.; Mangold, N.; Schröder, S.; Kah, L. C.; Dromart, G.; Ollila, A.; Johnson, J. R.; Oehler, D. Z.; Bridges, J. C.; Le Mouélic, S.; Forni, O.; Wiens, R.C.; Anderson, R. B.; Blaney, D. L.; Bell, J.F.; Clark, B.; Cousin, A.; Dyar, M. D.; Ehlmann, B.; Fabre, C.; Gasnault, O.; Grotzinger, J.; Lasue, J.; Lewin, E.; Léveillé, R.; McLennan, S.; Maurice, S.; Meslin, P.-Y.; Rapin, W.; Rice, M.; Squyres, S. W.; Stack, K.; Sumner, D. Y.; Vaniman, D.; Wellington, D. (2014). "Calcium sulfate veins characterized by ChemCam/Curiosity at Gale crater, Mars" (PDF). Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. 119 (9): 1991–2016. Bibcode:2014JGRE..119.1991N. doi:10.1002/2013JE004588. ISSN 2169-9097. 
  79. Erickson, Jim (April 2014). "Mission to Mt. Sharp - Senior Review Proposal (for extended mission)" (PDF). NASA. 
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