Mars has become something of a focal point of the final frontier. People have been attempting to research the Red Planet, one of Earth’s closest neighbors and arguably the planet most similar to ours, since the 1950s. But only since about the 1970s has technology been advanced enough to explore its surface and transmit information back home. Now, geologist Dr. Alexandra Pontefract and her team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are building an extremely complex instrument that would allow us to find out if there is DNA on Mars – in other words, has there ever been life on the Red Planet? So far, there’s been no evidence, but this project is hoping that will change.
Pontefract says that it’s certainly possible that there was life at one time on Mars, and thus traces of DNA still left on its surface. There is significant evidence suggesting that Earth and Mars were both habitable at the time the solar system formed, between about 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago. And, what’s more, she describes a “big exchange of rocks between Mars and Earth,” during a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment, when meteors continually struck the inner solar system. So even if Mars wasn’t habitable at the time, Pontefract says that it’s possible that living organisms (probably simple, unicellular ones) survived through space on a meteor crashing first into Earth, then Mars. It may sound crazy, but there is actually evidence of organisms surviving an ejection from a planet and a trip through space.
The Life Detection project is being funded by NASA and uses a technique called Raman spectroscopy, which takes information given by molecular vibrations and can help identify a sample. Currently the Life Detection instrument is in the mid-stages of development, what NASA labels a Technical Readiness Level of 4 (1-2 are beginning stages, mid-stages are 3-6, and 7 means a project is ready for flight.) The instrument will be tested this month in a Mars analog environment, which is a special research facility meant to simulate some of the physical conditions on Mars in order to test aspects of a mission, like hardware and sample collection techniques. Whether or not there is, or was, life on Mars, Pontefract’s team can’t wait to find out.