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NASA Plans To Search For Martians: Where Will They Begin The Hunt?

First Posted: Oct 18, 2016 06:04 AM EDT
Echus Chasma
In this handout image supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 16, 2008, The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars, is pictured from ESA's Mars Express. The dark material shows a network of light-colored, incised valleys that look similar to drainage networks known on Earth.
(Photo : ESA / Getty Images)

NASA plans to start its mission of hunting for Martians with the Mars 2020 rover, a next generation robot that will have a sophisticated mobile geology laboratory created especially to search for signs of tiny dead Martians, albeit in microbial and fossilized forms. The goal of the rover will be to collect rock samples that might include ancient fossils.

Nearly four billion years ago, when our planet was still a fledgling, Mars was reportedly already proceeding towards its death bed. The planet's thick atmosphere was gradually escaping into space and subsequently leading to a plummet in temperatures that caused the rivers and lakes on the Red Planet to freeze that ultimately changed the wet surface into a dry wasteland. According to reports, scientists are of the opinion that life could have once existed on Mars, due to the presence of the more favorable conditions that could have supported it. This belief is one of the reported reasons for sending a mission to Mars, to search for dead aliens or fossilized Martians.

However, a question arises, where exactly will the rover start its search for dead Martians, considering the planet is not exactly a small place. According to NASA, the sensitive scientific instruments on Mars 2020 will look for biosignatures, which are basically the molecules and minerals secreted by ancient life. The most promising area, as per the American Space Agency, for detecting biosignatures are extinct hydrothermal vents and dried up lake beds. However, the search is still not an easy feat because of the limited range of the rover.

"On Earth, you could have 50 graduate students walking all over western Australia looking for just the right place for ancient fossils," said Ken Farley, project scientist. "We're not going to get that luxury. We're going to land in one place and cruise around an area that might be over a 15-kilometer linear distance."

The researchers are however not daunted by the limits they face because Mars is said to be a well preserved fossil as a whole, unlike Earth that is a bed of seismic activity. Therefore, the rocks on the Red Planet would not have undergone as many changes as something on our planet could have gone through. In fact, according to scientists, 50 percent of the surface on Mars contains intact rocks that date back to those important first billion formative years of the planet.

The Mars 2020 rover will selectively collect rocks based on qualities that make them strong proofs for preserving Martian fossils. The focus will also be on finding two particular types of minerals, namely chert and silica, which have been found to be ideal for fossilizing biological material on earth. Apart from them, clay mineral deposits will be another hunting ground as their presence indicates that standing water existed in the area for a long time period.

Rock formations on Mars will be another area that geologists would focus on, especially the cauliflower-shaped silica formations inside Mars's Gusev Crater, similar formations on Earth have been created by bacteria that reside within the hot springs on our planet. Stromatolites are another type of formation that will be observed on Mars, as the presence of these on our planet implies the work of microbial mats.

With all the criteria, NASA is targeting eight landing sites on Mars where there are more chances of finding remnants of dead Martians. However, it should be noted that even if the Mars 2020 rover identifies rock samples that are strong candidates for containing Martian remnants, the instruments aboard the vehicle cannot actually verify their existence. The samples have to be inspected either by a robotic sample return mission or a future human expedition, following which geologists will be able to conduct a detailed observation keeping in mind that the rock formations could be geological and not biological in nature.

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