Investigating the habitability of Mars

The MASE (Mars Analogues for Space Exploration) research project based within the UK Centre for Astrobiology will assess the habitability of Mars by studying how life survives in extreme environments on Earth. Dr Petra Schwendner, who plays a major role in the scientific co-ordination of MASE, explains the work of the project.

I have a strong background in the enrichment of anaerobic microorganisms with a focus on astrobiology. Over the next 3 years I will be using a diverse set of different present-day Earth-Mars analogue environments to help further the assessment of the habitability of Mars.

Detecting life of Mars, and investigating whether it was ever there, depends on knowledge of whether the combined environmental stresses experienced on Mars are compatible with life and whether a record of that life could ever be detected. Therefore, I will obtain samples from sites including the cold sulphidic springs of the Sippenauer Moor and Islinger Muehlbach in Germany, subsurface environments at 1.1 km depth in the Boulby salt mine (UK), permafrost in Canada and Russia, acidic cold lakes in Iceland, and the Rio Tinto sediments in Spain.

Each of these environments is characterized by exhibiting environmental extremes like low temperature, aridity, high salinity, acidity and low nutrient availability. Once I have obtained samples, I will try to isolate and characterize microorganisms that can thrive under anaerobic conditions. Future goals are to study their responses to realistic combined environmental stresses that might have been experienced in habitable environments on Mars and their potential for fossilisation on Mars and their detectability.

l am looking forward to being part of this promising collaborative research project involving partners from across Europe. To find out more, see our MASE website.

The University of Edinburgh is the scientific coordinator of MASE. This 2.5million euro project is supported by the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) of the European Community for research, technological development and demonstration activities.