From Stig Agermose

Looking For Alien Life: Antarctica Could Pass For Mars


Science & Technology

Published Tuesday, March 16, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Continent could pass for Mars

Mercury News Washington Bureau


PROBABLY no place on Earth so resembles the rocky, windswept plains of
Mars as this desolate valley at the base of the Transantarctic
Mountains. The little Martian rover that delighted millions with its
rambles in the summer of 1997 would feel right at home.

That's why Jeff Slostad, an engineer from NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, came here to practice working with a key piece
of the Mars Polar Lander, a spacecraft that is supposed to touch down
near the Red Planet's south pole in December.

"It's amazing," he said. "This place looks just like Mars."

Slostad designed the Polar Lander's robotic arm, which is supposed to
scoop out a shallow trench in the frozen Martian soil and dump the
dirt into a miniature lab for analysis. Researchers hope the lander
will find water or chemicals that might boost the case for life on

"It worked perfectly," Slostad exulted a few days after the tryout.
"We learned a lot about how to work the arm and interpret the

Scientists looking for evidence of life -- past or present -- on other
planets or moons find Antarctica fascinating. It's a test bed and
training ground for the accelerating search for extraterrestrial
organisms sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration and the National Science Foundation.

After ignoring each other for years, researchers specializing in the
polar regions of Mars have begun meeting with their Arctic and
Antarctic counterparts. They have found a lot in common.

"Antarctic lakes are good analogs of lakes purported to have existed
on the surface of Mars in the past," said Peter Doran, a biologist at
the Desert Research Institute in Reno who spent much of the brief
Antarctic summer in a wet suit diving into Lake Hoare, a 500-acre,
ice-covered lake fed by glaciers looming over Taylor Valley.

Doran studies thick green mats of algae growing on the lake bottom, 80
feet below its icy crust. Scientists think simple organisms like algae
could once have existed on the Red Planet -- and perhaps may still
cling to life beneath the surface.

"That's what we're looking for on Mars -- not little green men but
little green mats," said Christopher McKay, a NASA Mars expert who
also works in Antarctica.

Astronomers believe Mars was once warm and wet, much like our own
planet when life got started here more than 3 billion years ago.
Orbiting spaceships and previous Martian landers have sent back
pictures of what appear to be channels carved by flowing water early
in the planet's history. The water either evaporated or sank
underground long ago, but it may have gone through an intermediate icy

"Running water must have pooled to form lakes," Doran said. "Lake
Hoare would be like the last stage of a lake on Mars."

Antarctica, too, used to be warm and wet, but it later turned into the
coldest, driest place on Earth. There are only a few bodies of liquid
water, such as like Lake Hoare, which are fed by streams trickling
down from surrounding glaciers during December and January, the peak
of summer.

Lake Hoare is in one of Antarctica's unusual "Dry Valleys." Unlike
most of the continent, the Dry Valleys are a 2,000-square-mile area
swept free of snow and ice by powerful winds roaring down from the
high polar plateau. The average annual temperature is 4 degrees below
zero; it is just above freezing in summer.

In addition to dried-up lakes once covered by ice, McKay believes Mars
might still retain some liquid water below its barren surface, warmed
by radiation from the planet's metallic core.

"That way there could still be subsurface life on Mars," he said.

Russian scientists have been able to revive bacteria frozen for 3.5
million years in Siberian permafrost. But whether they could remain
viable for more than 3 billion years is doubtful, said David
Gilichinsky, a Russian expert on ancient microorganisms who also works
in Antarctica's Dry Valleys.

Whether it's Mars, Europa or some more distant planet, scientists are
pressing ahead with the search for extraterrestrial life, not just out
of curiosity but because of what they may learn about life here.

"All life on Earth is of one kind, variations on the same theme,"
McKay said. "To understand life on Earth, we need a second example."

March 1999
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