Friday, March 16, 2007

Follow the Oil! > PAWG and the Search for Life on Mars

On the 6th Workshop of the European Astrobiology Network Association that took place in Lyon it was presented a topic marking the difference by not trying to “Follow the Water"...
"Search for oil reservoirs on Mars" was the result of a deep study on the history of Mars, focused on the search for oil on the Red Planet, having into account that oil might be a reserve of organic material for potential life forms.
The topic was presented by the Portuguese Astrobiology Working Group. PAWG is currently studing the 'Mars Exobiological Potential' as part of the
MAGIC project (Mars Atmospherical Geophysical and ExobIological Characterisation), financed by the FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia) and with the Recognised Cooperating Laboratory status for the Mars Express mission. The group, coordinated by Prof. Maria Eugénia Webb, the Portuguese representative at the European Astrobiology Network Association.

PAWG, via the FCT Astrobiology Working Group, is also responsible for the development of the Extreme Database project, dedicated to extremophile organisms.

It was on the behalf of the PAWG that
Susana Direito, from the Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, kindly answered some spacEurope questions.

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Your research derives from a premise inverse to the one adopted on Earth...it deals with searching oil to find life and no to dizimate it...

Yes, effectively. It is my oppinion that we must invest more and more on alternatives to the use of oil as fuel.
The search for oil on Mars must be done, exclusively, on a astrobiological and scientific point of view.


What might the consequences be, for a future exploration of Mars, if studies provide proofs of the existence of oil reservoirs?

If such happens then the key word will be “caution”. As in other space missions “caution is fundamental, because there will always be a contamination problem.
Every mission being planned will need to be ver well thought.


Any promising results so far? Are there specific locations as serious candidates?

It is a very promising hypothesis because a deep study of the planet was undertaken.
The candidate locations are the areas where we can find dark streaks and dark features.
The choice of one of them as a target for a potential mission depends on the technical means available and the terrain caractheristiques.


You have made reference to the use of MOC and MGS images in your study, could you be more specific and tell us which?

One example is the following image:

(Detail from a MOC narrow-angle image: M15-01460; credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.)


The dark features you made reference to are not comparable to dune fields such as El Dorado...how is the distinction made?

The dark slope streaks to which I make reference are as the one in the image example, differencing itself from the surrounding terrain due to its darker tone and appearing like liquid flows.


Could you resume how does oil acts on ice and what are the results, in comparative terms, on Mars?

The performed study was on a aspect/configuration level, this means that it was compared the aspect and configuration of terrestrial oil on ice with some images obtained on the martian south pole.


What are the instruments onboard Mars Express useful for your project?

The Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) onboard Mars Express was very useful, because it was through it that Formisano ad its team detected methane on the martian atmosphere.
The detection of this hydrocarbon is of great importance because on our planet, beyond the capability of metanogenic extremophiles to produce it it can be also related with the production of hydrocarbonates on sedimentary basins, because methane is often generated and stowed in sedimentary rocks associated to gas and oil deposits.


I don’t know if you have read the small spacEurope Q’n’A with Giovanni Picardi where he alludes to the possibility of present liquid water extensions detection.
Were you aware of this and which are the direct implications to your work?


Yes, I was already aware of that.
The existence of liquid water only comes in support of our hypothesis.
Water in liquid state is one of the prerequisits for the existence of life.


What distinguishes the dark streaks you mention from dust devils trails or from the gullies where recently alterations attributed to water were detected?

The dark slope streaks observed are different from the gullies or dust devils trails.
They tend to look like liquid flows and present a darker colour than its surroundings.
From the study we have done on Mars history and processes, we propose that this dark streaks might be oil seeps or mixtures of water and oil emerging to the surface.
We think that this seeps are not just water because liquid water wouldn’t persist such an amount of time on the martian surface, this would freeze due to the low temperatures or it would evaporate immediately as consequence of the low atmospheric pressure.
What happens is that this dark streaks stay for a longer period of time, persisting for many years, getting lighter with the passage of time.
We explain this event with the fact of oil, being a viscuous and sticky substance, easily attracts lighter color dust.


Equator, South Pole...
There is not a specific region, can Mars be an immense oil reservoir?
Would a discovery of that nature point out to a gigantic mausoleum of a planet thriving with life in the past?


Oly further investigations will be able to answer that question.
But I point to the fact that martian oil might had an abiogenic origin.


As astrobiologist you had to study also geology, in particular ancient tectonic processes that took place on Mars. How is it like to deal with that interdisciplinarity?...

I think that it was easy to deal with and, as with any researcher or student moved by curiosity, everything becomes more easy and interesting.


The MAGIC project envolves several different components.
In which manner do the other parts help in your particular study?


As we use to say, the parts make the whole. Interdisciplinarity is really important.


Could you explain me what are the advantages for the MAGIC project of having the RCL status?

I believe that the fact of being attributed by ESA, an instituion with such a high prestige speaks for itself.
Its the first time that Portuguese institutions are envolved in a project of this nature with the European Space Agency and it is also the first time we have the RCL status in Portugal.


You are also active part of the Extreme Database project.
What is the objective? Know where to look for life on Mars? Possible use on an eventual future Terraforming process?


The objective is to make available the more information as possible about this extraordinary microorganisms in order to anyone interested ad with the more distinct objectives (Terraforming, search for life on Mars, etc) can obtain informaion on a quick way, having access to the bibliographic references.


Who consults the database?

Astrobiologists, biologists and whom might be interested in the subject.


From all the organisms present there might there be the possiblity of some being, in fact, martians?

The panspermia possiblity can not be ruled out, it wouldn’t be certainly impossible that a martian meteorite could have transported life to Earth.


There is a lot of studies about the Rio Tinto, are organisms like those, in reality, the most serious candidates to be our red planet neighbours?
Do you discard the possiblity of more developed organisms?


I believe that, actually, if Mars sustains forms of life this will surely be microscopic or, at least, not visible in the images we have actually available from Mars.
The extremophiles are good candidates.


As astrobiologist how are your optimism levels regarding finding life beyond Earth, taking into account the latest missions?

My optimism levels are high. For example, the discovery of oil on Mars would be a good sign.


In a time that we ear so much about Titan, Enceladus, Europa, on the hypothesis of comets being carriers of life...are you envolved in other projects that dedicate to other bodies besides Mars? What are you developing in terms of future work?

At the moment the PAWG is envolved only in this project, but we would be very pleased to participate in other projects or cooperations with different institutions if proposals are presented to us.


If you could decide what should the next mission target be...where would you send it and with which goals?

I would send a mission to Mars to continue a focused search to the sites were the probability of existing life is higher such as the Martian subsurface. And to investigate if this seeps are really oil and its origin, I mean, if it is biogenic or abiogenic.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Is there more research available?

Rui said...

Soon there will be important news from the team.