The search for life on other planets is an age old quest. Astronomers, scientists, astronauts and regular backyard stargazers are always looking skyward for clues to where in the universe other forms of life might be. Neil Armstrong's moon landing and NASA's subsequent missions there ruled out the presence of "moon men" or any other creatures, but still we search. So where to look next?
Today's efforts center mostly on Mars. Mars is where it's at in the exploration to find other forms of life beyond our own planet. So what's the latest? The Curiosity rover is there, rolling over the red ground taking samples and sending back images. Currently the rover is closely examining an area called Gale Crater. Gale Crater has at its center a three mile high mountain, with many layers that serve as proof of the areas geological history. Scientists are fairly certain the area once contained water and methane, both of which are necessary components for life.
Those two elements are not enough however, they need a catalyst in order for life to develop. A recently published paper by NASA Planetary Scientist Laurie Barge details the possibility of rust as that catalyst, but not just any rust. The mineral iron will rust when exposed to oxygen and turn an orange red, as it does on the surface of the planet. But another form of rust, one that could possibly nurture life, could exist just below the surface of the red planet. This rust is green, because it isn't oxidized and if found, could tell scientists much about the possibility of life on Mars.
Green rust is uncommon on Earth but was discovered in 2012 in Matano Lake in Indonesia, unique for its lack of oxygen. Some theories say that green rust might have been instrumental in the beginnings of life on Earth and therefore the same could hold true on Mars.
The surface of Mars is also low in oxygen so iron present on the surface would not immediately break down, but rather develop a green rust, setting in motion a chain of events where life could develop. In statement at the American Geophysical Union's Joint Assembly meeting Barge explained, "From an environmental science perspective, green rust can absorb and concentrate nutrients, and can also accept and donate electrons for life."
Future missions to Mars, one from NASA and one from the European Space Agency, will have the ability to drill into the planet's surface to look for this unoxidized green rust. Barge told the scientists at the Joint Assembly that more study is needed before these missions launch to better understand how green rust acts as a pre-cursor to life on any planet. An article on Space.com quoted Barge as saying, "There's a theory proposed by Michael Russell at JPL that green rust could have acted as a proto-enzyme to convert energy currencies on early Earth. Green rust is especially interesting in this regard because it is a double layered hydroxide that can sandwich all sorts of interesting components relevant to life in between these layers."
Check out the video below for more information on green rust.
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