Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Life on Mars


Here, we present a comprehensive approach for creating robust, elastic, designer Lunar and Martian regolith simulant (LRS and MRS, respectively) architectures using ambient condition, extrusion-based 3D-printing of regolith simulant inks. The LRS and MRS powders are characterized by distinct, highly inhomogeneous morphologies and sizes, where LRS powder particles are highly irregular and jagged and MRS powder particles are rough, but primarily rounded. The inks are synthesized via simple mixing of evaporant, surfactant, and plasticizer solvents, polylactic-co-glycolic acid (30% by solids volume), and regolith simulant powders (70% by solids volume). Both LRS and MRS inks exhibit similar rheological and 3D-printing characteristics, and can be 3D-printed at linear deposition rates of 1-150 mm/s using 300 μm to 1.4 cm-diameter nozzles. The resulting LRS and MRS 3D-printed materials exhibit similar, but distinct internal and external microstructures and material porosity (~20-40%). These microstructures contribute to the rubber-like quasi-static and cyclic mechanical properties of both materials, with young’s moduli ranging from 1.8 to 13.2 MPa and extension to failure exceeding 250% over a range of strain rates (10(-1)-10(2) min(-1)). Finally, we discuss the potential for LRS and MRS ink components to be reclaimed and recycled, as well as be synthesized in resource-limited, extraterrestrial environments.

Concepts: Mars, Materials science, Surfactant, Pascal, Ink, Young's modulus, Powder, Life on Mars


Reports of plumes or patches of methane in the Martian atmosphere that vary over monthly timescales have defied explanation to date. From in situ measurements made over a 20-month period by the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) of the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on Curiosity at Gale Crater, we report detection of background levels of atmospheric methane of mean value 0.69 ± 0.25 ppbv at the 95% confidence interval (CI). This abundance is lower than model estimates of ultraviolet (UV) degradation of accreted interplanetary dust particles (IDP’s) or carbonaceous chondrite material. Additionally, in four sequential measurements spanning a 60-sol period, we observed elevated levels of methane of 7.2 ± 2.1 (95% CI) ppbv implying that Mars is episodically producing methane from an additional unknown source.

Concepts: Ultraviolet, Statistics, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Methane, Saturn, Life on Mars


By analogy with Earth, methane in the martian atmosphere is a potential signature of ongoing or past biological activity. During the last decade, Earth-based telescopic observations reported “plumes” of methane of tens of parts-per-billion by volume (ppbv), and those from Mars orbit showed localized patches, prompting speculation of sources from subsurface bacteria or non-biological sources. From in situ measurements made by the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) on Curiosity using a distinctive spectral pattern unique to methane, we here report no detection of atmospheric methane with a measured value of 0.18 ±0.67 ppbv corresponding to an upper limit of only 1.3 ppbv (95% confidence level) that reduces the probability of current methanogenic microbial activity on Mars, and limits the recent contribution from extraplanetary and geologic sources.

Concepts: Measurement, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Methane, NASA, Pluto, Life on Mars


Volume mixing and isotope ratios secured with repeated atmospheric measurements taken with the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite on the Curiosity rover are: carbon dioxide (CO2), 0.960(±0.007); argon-40 ((40)Ar), 0.0193(±0.0001); nitrogen (N2), 0.0189(±0.0003); oxygen, 1.45(±0.09) × 10(-3); carbon monoxide, < 1.0 × 10(-3); and (40)Ar/(36)Ar, 1.9(±0.3) × 10(3). The (40)Ar/N2 ratio is 1.7 times greater and the (40)Ar/(36)Ar ratio 1.6 times lower than values reported by the Viking Lander mass spectrometer in 1976, whereas other values are generally consistent with Viking and remote sensing observations. The (40)Ar/(36)Ar ratio is consistent with martian meteoritic values, which provides additional strong support for a martian origin of these rocks. The isotopic signature δ(13)C from CO2 of ~45 per mil is independently measured with two instruments. This heavy isotope enrichment in carbon supports the hypothesis of substantial atmospheric loss.

Concepts: Oxygen, Carbon dioxide, Mars, Carbon, Carbon monoxide, Isotope, NASA, Life on Mars


The 1976 Viking Labeled Release (LR) experiment was positive for extant microbial life on the surface of Mars. Experiments on both Viking landers, 4000 miles apart, yielded similar, repeatable, positive responses. While the authors eventually concluded that the experiment detected martian life, this was and remains a highly controversial conclusion. Many believe that the martian environment is inimical to life and the LR responses were nonbiological, attributed to an as-yet-unidentified oxidant (or oxidants) in the martian soil. Unfortunately, no further metabolic experiments have been conducted on Mars. Instead, follow-on missions have sought to define the martian environment, mostly searching for signs of water. These missions have collected considerable data regarding Mars as a habitat, both past and present. The purpose of this article is to consider recent findings about martian water, methane, and organics that impact the case for extant life on Mars. Further, the biological explanation of the LR and recent nonbiological hypotheses are evaluated. It is concluded that extant life is a strong possibility, that abiotic interpretations of the LR data are not conclusive, and that, even setting our conclusion aside, biology should still be considered as an explanation for the LR experiment. Because of possible contamination of Mars by terrestrial microbes after Viking, we note that the LR data are the only data we will ever have on biologically pristine martian samples.

Concepts: Biology, Life, Microbiology, Mars, Phoenix, Life on Mars, Extraterrestrial life, Viking program


The putative occurrence of methane in the Martian atmosphere has had a major influence on the exploration of Mars, especially by the implication of active biology. The occurrence has not been borne out by measurements of atmosphere by the MSL rover Curiosity but, as on Earth, methane on Mars is most likely in the subsurface of the crust. Serpentinization of olivine-bearing rocks, to yield hydrogen that may further react with carbon-bearing species, has been widely invoked as a source of methane on Mars, but this possibility has not hitherto been tested. Here we show that some Martian meteorites, representing basic igneous rocks, liberate a methane-rich volatile component on crushing. The occurrence of methane in Martian rock samples adds strong weight to models whereby any life on Mars is/was likely to be resident in a subsurface habitat, where methane could be a source of energy and carbon for microbial activity.

Concepts: Water, Earth, Mars, Igneous rock, Granite, NASA, Life on Mars, Mars Science Laboratory


Decades of robotic exploration have confirmed that in the distant past, Mars was warmer and wetter and its surface was habitable. However, none of the spacecraft missions to Mars have included among their scientific objectives the exploration of Special Regions, those places on the planet that could be inhabited by extant martian life or where terrestrial microorganisms might replicate. A major reason for this is because of Planetary Protection constraints, which are implemented to protect Mars from terrestrial biological contamination. At the same time, plans are being drafted to send humans to Mars during the 2030 decade, both from international space agencies and the private sector. We argue here that these two parallel strategies for the exploration of Mars (i.e., delaying any efforts for the biological reconnaissance of Mars during the next two or three decades and then directly sending human missions to the planet) demand reconsideration because once an astronaut sets foot on Mars, Planetary Protection policies as we conceive them today will no longer be valid as human arrival will inevitably increase the introduction of terrestrial and organic contaminants and that could jeopardize the identification of indigenous Mars life. In this study, we advocate for reassessment over the relationships between robotic searches, paying increased attention to proactive astrobiological investigation and sampling of areas more likely to host indigenous life, and fundamentally doing this in advance of manned missions. Key Words: Contamination-Earth Mars-Planetary Protection-Search for life (biosignatures). Astrobiology 17, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Mars, Space exploration, NASA, Astrobiology, Life on Mars, Extraterrestrial life, Planetary habitability, Mariner 4


Almost a decade after methane was first reported in the atmosphere of Mars there is an intensive discussion about both the reliability of the observations–particularly the suggested seasonal and latitudinal variations–and the sources of methane on Mars. Given that the lifetime of methane in the Martian atmosphere is limited, a process on or below the planet’s surface would need to be continuously producing methane. A biological source would provide support for the potential existence of life on Mars, whereas a chemical origin would imply that there are unexpected geological processes. Methane release from carbonaceous meteorites associated with ablation during atmospheric entry is considered negligible. Here we show that methane is produced in much larger quantities from the Murchison meteorite (a type CM2 carbonaceous chondrite) when exposed to ultraviolet radiation under conditions similar to those expected at the Martian surface. Meteorites containing several per cent of intact organic matter reach the Martian surface at high rates, and our experiments suggest that a significant fraction of the organic matter accessible to ultraviolet radiation is converted to methane. Ultraviolet-radiation-induced methane formation from meteorites could explain a substantial fraction of the most recently estimated atmospheric methane mixing ratios. Stable hydrogen isotope analysis unambiguously confirms that the methane released from Murchison is of extraterrestrial origin. The stable carbon isotope composition, in contrast, is similar to that of terrestrial microbial origin; hence, measurements of this signature in future Mars missions may not enable an unambiguous identification of biogenic methane.

Concepts: Chondrite, Carbonaceous chondrite, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Methane, Meteorite, Life on Mars


While it is anticipated that future human missions to Mars will increase the amount of biological and organic contamination that might be distributed on that planet, robotic missions continue to grow in capability and complexity, requiring precautions to be taken now to protect Mars, and particularly areas of Mars that might be Special Regions. Such precautionary cleanliness requirements for spacecraft have evolved over the course of the space age, as we have learned more about planetary environments, and are the subject of regular deliberations and decisions sponsored by the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). COSPAR’s planetary protection policy is maintained as an international consensus standard for spacecraft cleanliness that is recognized by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In response to the paper presented in this issue by Fairén et al. (2017), we examine both their concept of evidence for possible life on Mars and their logic in recommending that spacecraft cleanliness requirements be relaxed to access Special Regions “before it is too late.” We find that there are shortcomings in their plans to look for evidence of life on Mars, that they do not support their contention that appropriate levels of spacecraft cleanliness are unaffordable, that there are major risks in assuming martian life could be identified by nucleic acid sequence comparison (especially if those sequences are obtained from a Special Region contaminated with Earth life), and that the authors do not justify their contention that exploration with dirty robots, now, is preferable to the possibility that later contamination will be spread by human exploration. We also note that the potential effects of contaminating resources and environments essential to future human occupants of Mars are both significant and not addressed by Fairén et al. (2017). Key Words: Mars-Special Region-Mission-Life detection-Planetary protection. Astrobiology 17, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Life, Mars, Space exploration, Astrobiology, Life on Mars, Extraterrestrial life, Martian, United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space


Methane on Mars is a topic of special interest because of its potential association with microbial life. The variable detections of methane by the Curiosity rover, orbiters, and terrestrial telescopes, coupled with methane’s short lifetime in the martian atmosphere, may imply an active gas source in the planet’s subsurface, with migration and surface emission processes similar to those known on Earth as “gas seepage.” Here, we review the variety of subsurface processes that could result in methane seepage on Mars. Such methane could originate from abiotic chemical reactions, thermogenic alteration of abiotic or biotic organic matter, and ancient or extant microbial metabolism. These processes can occur over a wide range of temperatures, in both sedimentary and igneous rocks, and together they enhance the possibility that significant amounts of methane could have formed on early Mars. Methane seepage to the surface would occur preferentially along faults and fractures, through focused macro-seeps and/or diffuse microseepage exhalations. Our work highlights the types of features on Mars that could be associated with methane release, including mud-volcano-like mounds in Acidalia or Utopia; proposed ancient springs in Gusev Crater, Arabia Terra, and Valles Marineris; and rims of large impact craters. These could have been locations of past macro-seeps and may still emit methane today. Microseepage could occur through faults along the dichotomy or fractures such as those at Nili Fossae, Cerberus Fossae, the Argyre impact, and those produced in serpentinized rocks. Martian microseepage would be extremely difficult to detect remotely yet could constitute a significant gas source. We emphasize that the most definitive detection of methane seepage from different release candidates would be best provided by measurements performed in the ground or at the ground-atmosphere interface by landers or rovers and that the technology for such detection is currently available. Key Words: Mars-Methane-Seepage-Clathrate-Fischer-Tropsch-Serpentinization. Astrobiology 17, xxx-xxx.

Concepts: Planet, Mars, Igneous rock, NASA, Impact crater, Life on Mars, Mars Exploration Rover, Valles Marineris