NASA's Next Mars Rover Intensifies Hunt for Extinct Martian Microbes

By Gary Cutlack on at

NASA's having another go at exploring Mars, as if we're not already bored of photos of barren red landscapes, with its unnamed 2020 Mars Rover already deep into development. This time, it'll be targeting rocks with the best chance of revealing ancient Martian life via a complex form of spectroscopy.

The team behind the sensor want to look for pristine rocks with the best chance of maybe having some little fossilized bacteria in them, and plan to do so by using an advanced form of Raman spectroscopy to ping possible rocks of interest. It'll be down to the rover's SHERLOC device -- Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals -- to do the work, checking samples of rock on or just below the Martian surface to pull out the most viable.

It does this by analysing the frequency at which the contents vibrate. Current techniques include looking for the signs of carbon, but that's a vague process as coal is carbon and NASA would look pretty silly if it brought a bit of coal back to earth at the end of a trillion dollar life-finding mission.

The MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering claims to have developed a more accurate measure of the source of the carbon detected within rocks, though, looking at the ratio of hydrogen to carbon atoms within rock that changes through exposure to temperature and the harsh Martian environment. Less hydrogen means the rock has been more abused by time and space; more hydrogen should indicate a better preserved chunk of ancient Mars is ready for a probing. [MIT]

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