Mars, Missions and Microbes

April proved to be a very successful month, with three brand new projects selected for funding by the UK Space Agency as part of their ongoing ‘Aurora’ programme. These projects are very different, but all relate to the ongoing exploration of Mars…

The first is a 3.5 year PhD Studentship to explore chemolithotrophic metabolisms and resulting stable isotope biosignatures in Mars analogue environments, working with stable isotope guru Aubrey Zerkle, also at St Andrews. For this project we will use ice-fed hydrothermal lakes and pools in Iceland to investigate microbial communities that feed off sulfur and iron compounds, and get their carbon from CO2. We will grow these microorganisms in the lab under regular and ‘martian’ conditions, and investigate how these communities produce unique stable isotope fractionation patterns preserved within organic matter and minerals. This will help us understand what kind of evidence we might expect to be left behind by any putative martian microbes that existed billions of years ago when Mars was a less hostile planet for life.


The second is a 3 year project with a dedicated postdoctoral position. The focus of this project is the scientific integration and exploitation of the PanCam, ISEM, and CLUPI instruments which are part of the payload on the European Space Agency ‘ExoMars’ rover mission, due to launch in 2018 or 2020. This work is co-led by Matthew Gunn at Aberystwyth University, and also involves collaboration with Mark Claire at St Andrews and Andrew Coates at UCL. Over these 3 years we will learn how to utilise and combine the core remote-sensing instruments on the ExoMars rover – the context and close-up cameras (PanCam, CLUPI) and infrared spectrometer (ISEM) – to characterise the geology and mineralogy of the rocks around the rover. Data from these instruments will be used to select where the ExoMars rover will drill to a depth of 2 meters and search for evidence of ancient microbial life using other instruments on board. Therefore it’s vital to understand how to identify those rocks that were deposited in once-habitable conditions, perhaps 3 or 4 billion years ago. For this we will take these instruments to geological terrains on Earth that are similar to those on Mars, including Iceland, the Atacama Desert in Chile, and the Pilbara region in Australia.


Testing the ExoMars PanCam in Iceland in 2013 for Jennifer Harris’ PhD (see Harris et al. 2015)

Finally, the third, 2 year project is being led by Matthew Gunn at Aberystwyth University, and will develop a prototype instrument to conduct luminescence age dating for in situ environments on Mars. Luminescence age dating is widely used in environmental sciences to establish how long a certain rock or sediment deposit has been exposed at the surface, but has yet to be used in robotic exploration of Mars. Being able to date modern surface processes on Mars, such as atmospheric erosion, or exposure of ancient sediments, will give us a better grasp of what’s going on on Mars today and also allow us to identify the best rocks to search for preserved organics, which are rapidly destroyed by UV radiation once exposed to the Mars surface environment. Creating new instrument prototypes like this early on means they can eventually be developed into more advanced instruments ready for missions to the Martian surface in the future.


Examples of modern, active process (A-B) and sedimentary burial and exhumation on Mars (C). A) HiRISE image of Recurring Slope Lineae at Newton Crater (credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona); B) Dune-fields at Arom Chaos (credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona); (C) Stratified lacustrine sediments imaged by the MSL Curiosity rover (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS).

The postdoc and PhD studentship opportunities detailed above will be announced in due course…watch this space!