Nearly barren Icelandic landscapes guide search for extraterrestrial life | 2/28/2019 | Staff
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New research on microbial lifeforms living in nearly barren volcanic landscapes in Iceland may help scientists understand how best to search for life on other planets.

Researchers with NASA's FELDSPAR (Field Exploration and Life Detection Sampling for Planetary Analogue Research) project are studying the distribution of life in these harsh Icelandic environments to inform the search for hidden life signs on planets like Mars. So far, they have found that microbes at their study sites are often isolated in "hot spots" and that microbial communities are distributed differently in areas subjected to different geological processes, such as wind or glaciation. They presented their results last month at AGU's Fall Meeting 2019 in San Francisco.

Search - Life - Sensing - Satellites - Telescopes

The search for extraterrestrial life is currently limited to remote sensing, with satellites and telescopes, and ground-based robotic missions, such as NASA's Mars 2020 rover mission set to launch next year. Rovers can only collect and test a certain number of samples before their resources are exhausted, so sample selection must be strategic.

Scientists suspect Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is now and could have harbored life. However, signs of past life or potential surviving lifeforms are not obvious. "What [FELDSPAR researchers] have been working on is trying to figure out how many samples we need to get in order to probabilistically sample that one region that has that biological hotspot," said Amanda Stockton, a biochemist at Georgia Institute of Technology and co-principle investigator of the FELDSPAR project.

Lack - Life - Icelandic - Environments - Choice

It is the lack of widespread, obvious life that makes Icelandic volcanic environments an ideal choice as Martian analog sites. They are covered in tephra, ash or rocky material spewed from the volcanos. The tephra is dominated by basalt, a volcanic rock that makes up many regions on the surface of Mars. FELDSPAR researchers collect tephra samples and test...
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