Harsh Antarctic May Reveal the Chances of Life on Mars

First Posted: Jan 20, 2016 06:28 PM EST

A location on our planet Earth may tell researchers a bit more about Mars-and the life that may be there. Scientists have been looking for signs of active microbial life in permafrost soil in one of the coldest, oldest and driest places on Earth, and have finally found it.

In the high elevation McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, extremely cold and dry conditions have persisted for over 150,000 years. This region is actually the one place on Earth that most closely resembles the permafrost found in the northern polar region of Mars at the Phoenix landing site.

In fact, in order to actually drill into the permafrost, the researchers has to use a NASA ASTEP, which is a permafrost drill designed to drill into Martian permafrost. The researchers analyzed samples from two permafrost boreholes which reached a depth of just 42 cm and 55 cm below the surface.  While it wasn't very deep, it was difficult to drill all that far for samples because of how cold it was.

"Anytime you drill into frozen ground and it has some ice in it the drilling process creates friction which melts the ice," said Lyle Whyte, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The hole will refreeze within seconds if the drilling is interrupted, freezing the drill bit into the hole. I remember drilling in the Arctic and losing a drill bit in one of the holes we had made, just because it froze to the ice before we could get it out."

The researchers conducted a variety of tests looking for life, but they all seemed to come back negative. In fact, any limited traces the researchers found of microbial life were likely the remnants of microbes that were dormant or slowly dying off.

So what does this mean? If the conditions are too cold and dry to support life on Earth, then the colder and dryer conditions in the near surface permafrost on Mars are also unlikely to contain life. It also means that any microbes that are accidentally transferred to Mars form Earth by mistake are unlikely to be able to survive on the Martina surface.

The findings are published in the journal ISME Journal.

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