August 14, 2006

Scientists Explore Mars from Earth’s North Pole

High in the Arctic, just below Earth's north polar ice cap, a collaboration of nearly two dozen biologists, geologists, and engineers have embarked on an expedition to Mars.

The scientists and researchers are spending two and a half weeks at the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean north of Norway. The goal of this annual expedition, called the Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE), is to characterize the geology, geophysical features, biosignatures, and possible life forms of volcanic centers, warm springs, and perennial rivers -- settings thought to be analogous to sites on ancient Mars.

During AMASE 2006, researchers will test a modified Mark III spacesuit replica. Although the test suit is lighter than the original Mark III, it is still quite heavy on Earth -- about 35 kilograms (75 pounds). Before taking it out in the field, astrobiologists will sterilize and test the suit and then test it again afterward to see what contaminants, including from the wearer, were brought back with the suit.

Scientists also will observe how the sterilization process affects the joints of the suit, as well as watch for any damage or deterioration that may happen during fieldwork. They also will test the ability to manipulate sterile sample containers without contaminating them -- a necessary procedure that needs to be worked out if humans are to search for life on Mars.

Engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory also plan to test life detection instruments on a rover designed to safely maneuver cliff faces. The "cliff bot" may one day be used in concert with astronauts, so the human explorers at the Mars analog site will practice how to best to coordinate human and robotic activities. While testing the spacesuit, researchers also will be trying out new tools for communication and data logging, such as a wearable computer, throat microphone, and digital display.

Testing the spacesuit and the cliff bot are just two of the many objectives that the 2006 expedition team wants to achieve. Two instruments headed for Mars on the planned Mars Science Laboratory mission -- the CheMin X-ray Diffraction/X-ray Fluorescence (XRD/XRF) instrument used for mineralogical analysis, and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer used for atmospheric analysis -- will be tested to see how they perform in the frigid environment. The two instruments also will be used to develop protocols to search for organics.

Team members also will test the Mars Microbeam Raman Spectrometer and an ultraviolet spectrometer being developed for future missions. Additionally, some team members are developing new astrobiological instruments using modern microbiological forensic techniques. One of these instruments, the Lab-on-a-Chip, is set to fly on an upcoming shuttle mission to test for molds and pathogens on the International Space Station.

One of this year's expedition sites, located in the Bockfjorden area of Svalbard at 80ºN, is an intriguing place where hot meets cold. About 1 million years ago, the Sverrefjell volcano erupted through an ice sheet. Today, the ice sheet is gone and the volcano is quiet.

In this dry and cold environment, hot springs still simmer, exhaling argon and helium gasses from Earth's mantle. Shaped by volcanism, ice, and liquid water, Svalbard reminds us of how Mars might have once been. Volcanic activity like this could still percolate beneath the surface of Mars and may be a potential habitat for microbial life.

The AMASE site has another important connection to Mars. Here, scientists found carbonate spherules that are nearly identical to those we see in the martian meteorite ALH84001 -- the meteorite which, although still controversial, houses possible evidence of simple life.

The spherules found in Bockfjorden typically have iron-rich cores and magnesium-rich rims, sometimes embedded in a calcite matrix -- a texture and composition that is identical to ALH84001. Expedition scientists are looking at both abiological and biological agents that may produce the Earthly carbonate spherules to better understand what may have formed similar structures on Mars.

AMASE consists of an international crew of scientists, engineers and filmmakers. Participating members hail from the University of Oslo, Electromagnetic Geoservices (Norway), Carnegie Institute of Washington, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Ames Research Center, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Penn State, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Indiana University, Smithsonian Institution, University of Leeds (UK), International Space Science Institute and Optic Verve. AMASE first began four years ago, led by Hans Amundsen of the University of Oslo.


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