Scientists in Chile believe that the key to discovering life on Mars could lie in the expansive Atacama, the world’s most arid region and with a climate similar to that of the red planet.
Last year, US scientists analysing data from a NASA spacecraft reported that water flows during the summer months on Mars, raising the possibility that the planet long thought to be arid could support life today.
But water or not, Chilean astro-biologist Armando Azua told Reuters that the survival of life in the Atacama shows that the existence of water on Mars is not necessarily a prerequisite for life since scientists have found life forms such as fungus, cells and microorganisms in the Atacama.
“Until recently, we believed that in areas of Mars where there was evidence of water, we would find or maximize our chances of finding life. What we are saying here is that even in those areas where we had dismissed the possibility of something being able to survive because the areas were apparently too dry, we have found places just as dry as Mars (here) on Earth and yet they are colonised by a variety of different microorganisms.
So we went back in search of life forms and said, you know what? There are areas where it previously looked like there was no chance of finding life forms because it was too dry, and we are demonstrating the opposite: that even when it is just as dry (as the Martian desert), life has been able to adapt to it,” said Azua.
If Azua’s theory is proven correct, it could have a significant impact on the search for life in Mars and beyond.
“If we can demonstrate that in the Atacama desert, with the preliminary evidence that we have, that life is not only able to tolerate extreme dryness but can keep on functioning in this dry state, then that would open tremendously the spectrum of possibilities of finding life not just in Mars but in other areas of the universe,” he said.
The prospect of limited water on Mars and the existence of life forms has implications for future human missions to Mars.
NASA’s goal is to land US astronauts on Mars in the mid-2030s.
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