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Life on Mars Experiment: Intriguing Results

Alpine and polar lichens could also survive on Mars. Planetary researchers at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) simulated the conditions on Mars for 34 days and exposed various microorganisms to this environment. Credit: DLR Institute of Planetary Research

Can life survive on Mars?

Yes! That’s the word from Planetary researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

DLR scientists have exposed various microorganisms for 34 days in simulated Martian conditions. In just issued findings, both alpine and polar lichens were found to endure the harsh environment found on the red planet.

“During this period, the lichens and bacteria continued to demonstrate measurable activity and carry out photosynthesis,” reported Jean-Pierre de Vera, a scientist at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin and head of the Mars simulation project.

The microorganisms adapted to this environment, primarily in niches in rocks and in fissures and gaps in the simulated Martian soil.

This might be an indication that such adaptation strategies would make life possible in niches on the actual surface of Mars as well, de Vera added in a DLR press statement.

The researchers recreated the Martian surface with various mineral constituents, using knowledge obtained from missions such as the NASA Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers.

Mimicking Mars

In the chamber itself, they replicated the Martian atmosphere: 95 percent carbon dioxide, four percent nitrogen and trace gases such as argon and oxygen.

A vacuum pump system was used to create six millibars of air pressure, thereby simulating the red planet’s tenuous atmosphere.

Special radiation sources ranging from the ultraviolet to the infrared replicated solar radiation on the surface of Mars. Finally, the organisms had to cope with temperatures that fluctuated between minus 50 degrees Celsius to plus 23 degrees Celsius.

Creative survivors

According to de Vera, the results obtained showed that the microorganisms could carry out photosynthesis even under these harsh conditions.

The water required for this process is present in the morning and evening of the Martian day, when humidity condenses as precipitation across the surface, and the organisms can absorb it.

The lichens prove to be “creative survivors” – primarily in niches on the surface – in small cracks and gaps. They adapted to the artificial Martian environment and demonstrated the same activity that they would in their natural environment.

“If life arose on Mars four billion years ago, it could have remained to the present day in niches,” de Vera said.

By Leonard David

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