Detecting life on Mars may be ‘impossible’ with current NASA rovers, new study warns

Detecting life on Mars may be ‘impossible’ with current NASA rovers, new study warns

The current generation of Mars rovers may have trouble confirming any signs of ancient life on the Red Planet because their scientific instruments aren’t up to snuff, according to research published Feb. 21 in the journal Nature Communications (opens in new tab)

In the study, researchers conducted tests on sedimentary rocks in the Red Stone region of Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the oldest and driest deserts on Earth and a geological analog to ancient sites on Mars that two NASA rovers are currently exploring. The same team of researchers previously discovered that Red Stone’s clays are inhabited by a previously unknown mix of ancient and modern microorganisms dubbed the “dark microbiome.” 

Using four instruments that are on current or upcoming Mars rovers, the team studied samples from Red Stone and found them incapable of detecting organic material. Only genetic sequencing, a procedure that can be done only in a laboratory on Earth, was capable of finding evidence of microbial life in the samples — but even then, it was barely detectable. 

Scientists hunted for microbial life in Chile’s Atacama Desert (right) to study how current science instruments might perform on Mars (left). (Image credit: Mars photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Atacama photo: Armando Azua-Bustos/Provided)

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