Spanish Scientists have discovered living microorganisms living just 30 centimetres under the surface of the driest place on Earth which closely resembles the dry conditions on Mars as part of a study researching the possibility of life on the red planet.
The potentially revolutionary discovery that could turn science fiction into science fact was made in the Atacama Desert located in northern Chile, to the west of the Andes, which besides being considered the driest place on Earth, is also one of the oldest deserts on the planet, dating back an estimated 10 to 15 million years and covering an area of over 40,500 square miles.
The findings were recently published in the online peer-reviewed science journal ‘Scientific Reports’, published by Nature Research, in a study led by researchers from the Astrobiological Centre (CAB) in Spain, which is run by the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA) in Torrejon, as well as the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in Madrid.
Real Press spoke with the leading author of the study, Armando Azua-Bustos, who is from the area of Chile where the discoveries were made. Research first started in 1967 but really exploded after NASA scientists found an area called Yungay which could be used to mimic the extremely arid conditions found on Mars.
Dr Azua-Bustos says “the driest parts” of the area were selected for their research as “practically nothing or nothing can live” there and that could serve as a “good model” that closely resembles the conditions that are found on Mars, allowing them to conduct studies to see how life adapted to such a dry place.
While digging in the area in 2018, they were shocked to find some wet clay, as it was just 30 centimetres from the surface.
The clay can only be formed after a prolonged period of being exposed to water.
Another shocking revelation was not just the discovery of water, but that “at least” 30 different microorganic species were living in the area where the wet clay was found that were “metabolically active” making it the first discovery of a habitat for microorganisms under the ground of the driest place on Earth.
These findings could later help reveal potential traces of life on the red planet, which has long been thought to have been completely barren since its formation.
Dr Azua-Bustos said: “All of this is happening just centimetres from the surface of the ground in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, which has a high saline content in the ground and oxidising compounds that should prevent life from existing there.
“If we have found something like this on Earth, why couldn’t we find a similar surprise in the case of Mars? And that is where the novelty of this publication comes from.”
Dr Azua-Bustos says the biosignature of the microorganisms found on Earth will be useful to determine whether there are any traces of past life on Mars and “that is its relevance”.
Scientists plan on sending two rovers to Mars with the specific task of searching for biosignatures preserved in clay that could prove once and for that life did, in fact, exist on Mars.
One of the rovers is NASA’s ‘Perseverance’ which is already seven months into its voyage to Mars and will collect samples to bring back to Earth to conduct extensive testing. The second will be the European Space Agency’s ‘Rosalind Franklin’ which will take off in September 2022 and land in June 2023. That one will conduct all its testing on the red planet itself.
Given that microorganisms can produce different kinds of membranes, it will allow scientists to not only identify if life existed in the area but they will also be able to distinguish between different microorganisms.
Dr Azua-Bustos said if life is in fact proven to have existed on Mars, it would be a “tremendous discovery” because irrefutable evidence would “change our view of the universe”, because if we find that two planets from one solar system, which in turn is also surrounded by thousands of other solar systems, support life, it could mean that life is “common”. The next question would be to assess the differences between the two planets’ lifeforms.
When asked about the practical uses that could potentially result from the discovery of life on Mars, Dr Azua-Bustos said: “A discovery does not necessarily have to give way to practical use, if you discover life on Mars, that is valuable in itself.
“But of course if someone really wanted to, they could look for different applications. If you look at all of the things we have been able to do with the life on Earth that we know about, imagine all of the other uses from lifeforms from another planet.”
The researcher considers humankind to be in a “Golden Age” of space exploration and we will one day look back and see how everything changed in these decades as the knowledge that our planet is only one of billions in the galaxy was something closer to science fiction once and there are also hundreds of thousands of planets that could have intelligent lifeforms.