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US Researchers Gear up to Use Raman Spectroscopy to Find Signs of Life on Mars

Forget fantasy of finding little green men on Mars, the latest findings from NASA rover Curiosity has revealed that there is a possibility of finding organism as conditions are conducive for their living on Mars. So, scientists at the University of Kansas are gearing up to find it with the help of Raman Spectroscopy.

In view of the exciting findings this year that Mars once contained actively flowing, low-saline, near-neutral-pH water — pretty much the type of water where you find life on Earth today, scientist Alison Olcott Marshall of the University of Kansas advocate using gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy along with Raman spectroscopy in the search for ancient life on Mars.

NASA's Curiosity Eyes Prominent Mineral Veins on Mars Prominent Veins at 'Garden City' on Mount Sharp, Mars Night Close-up of Mineral Veins at 'Garden City,' Mars This March 18, 2015, view from the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a network of two-tone mineral veins at an area called "Garden City" on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Eyes Prominent Mineral Veins on Mars
Prominent Veins at ‘Garden City’ on Mount Sharp, Mars
Night Close-up of Mineral Veins at ‘Garden City,’ Mars
This March 18, 2015, view from the Mast Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a network of two-tone mineral veins at an area called “Garden City” on lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“This has made people think that it’s possible that life could have existed on Mars, although most researchers agree it’s unlikely to exist today — at least on the surface — as conditions on the surface of Mars are incredibly harsh,” says Olcott Marshall.

Olcott and her co-scientist and husband Craig Marshall, both associate professors of geology at KU, are upbeat that they may improve the way scientists detect condensed aromatic carbon, thought to be a chemical signature of astrobiology.

“If we’re going to identify life on Mars, it will likely be the fossil remnants of the chemicals once synthesized by life, and we hope our research helps strengthen the ability to evaluate the evidence collected on Mars,” Craig Marshall said.

Craig Marshall, an expert of Raman spectroscopy used to look for carbonaceous materials, and Alison Olcott Marshall, a paleontologist studying preserved life on Earth without fossil findings, have recently made it to the news ruling out the idea that 3.5 billion-year-old specks found in rocks in Australia were the oldest examples of life on Earth.

They proved that these are not ancient bacteria fossils, but were nothing more than tiny gaps in the rock that are packed with minerals. Hence, they want to extrapolate their findings to ascertain that any traces of ancient biology, if detected on Mars, should be more conclusive.

In their recent paper in peer-reviewed Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society, they said Raman spectroscopy is able to screen for carbonaceous material, but it can’t determine its source, hence they argued for the technology that is required to determine beyond doubt if life exists on Mars or not.

“Raman spectroscopy works by impinging a laser on a sample so the molecules within that sample vibrate at diagnostic frequencies,” Craig Marshall said. “Measuring those frequencies allows the identification of inorganic and organic materials. It’s insufficient because however the carbonaceous material is made, it will be the same chemically and structurally, and thus Raman spectroscopy cannot determine the origin.”

The Marshall couple say they would prefer the use of gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy to supplement Raman spectroscopy to arrive at a more conclusive evidence of ancient extra-terrestrial life, in this case on Mars.

“Much like the search for ancient life on Earth, though, one strand of evidence is not, and should not be, conclusive,” said Alison Olcott Marshall. “This is a vast puzzle, and we want to make sure we are examining as many different pieces as we can.”

As of now, the KU researchers are probing rocks on earth using Raman spectroscopy to analyze whether they are similar to those on Mars.

“If you were to pick up a typical rock on Mars it would look quite different, chemically, from a typical rock here on Earth, not to mention the fact that it would be covered in rusty dust,” Alison Olcott Marshall said.
Since past research into how Raman spectroscopy would fare on Mars was mainly done on pure salts and minerals, often ones synthesized in a lab, they said they want to identidy field sites on the Kansas-Oklahoma border with a chemical content more like what could be found on Mars.

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