Scientists are training for Mars 2020 in the Aussie outback

Scientists search ancient rocks for traces of life in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia
NASA and ESA scientists have spent a week in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia. Image: UNSW Sydney

Scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) just spent a week in remote outback Australia with astrobiologists from UNSW for specialist training in how to identify signs of life in ancient rocks.

The scientists are preparing for NASA’s and ESA’s Mars 2020 missions, in which they will search for past life in rocks on the Red Planet that are as old as those in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, where the field trip was held. The trip was held at a secret site in the Pilbara with rocks up to three-and-a-half billion years old.

“It’s remarkable that the history hidden in the fossil record of ancient rocks from Australia’s Pilbara region will be vital for answering the question – is there life on Mars?” said Martin Van Kranendock, Director of UNSW Sydney’s Australian Centre for Astrobiology, who led the expedition.

The scientists’ camp at a secret site in the Pilbara, WA. Image: UNSW Sydney

The specialist training means the scientists will have a better idea of what geological context to look out for when searching for signs of ancient life on Mars, and what specific samples to collect for analysis on Mars, and to return to Earth.

“A really exciting outcome was the enthusiasm that the Mars scientists had coming away from the outcrops and thinking of how the textures they had seen would apply to their own missions,” said Professor Van Kranendock.

“Even more important was the collective realisation that life got started early on our planet, under similar conditions as what we know was happening on Mars at that time, enhancing the prospect for major discoveries during these two upcoming missions.”

Professor Van Kranendock has been studying the area traces of ancient life were first discovered there in 1980. This was the first time he has shared the region’s insights with a dedicated team of Mars specialists, which included the heads of the NASA and ESA Mars 2020 missions.

“Seeing the ancient stromatolites of Western Australia, and discussing with NASA and ESA colleagues how we might look for and sample possibly similar rocks on Mars, was tremendously useful as we prepare for our rovers’ arrival on Mars about 18 months from now,” said Ken Farley, a project scientist for Mars 2020 from Caltech.

“It is deeply satisfying that Australia’s ancient rocks and our scientific know-how is making such a significant contribution to our search for extra-terrestrial life and unlocking the secrets of Mars,” added Professor Van Kranendonk.

Read the full release from UNSW Sydney for more information.

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Gemma Chilton

Author: Gemma Chilton

Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.

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