Earth and Mars; sisters or distant relatives?

Lot Koopmans
Friday 23 August 2019

The second summer of my Laidlaw research took me to South Africa, where a small piece of the Earth’s crust provides a window into what Earth was like 3.5 billion years ago. During that time there was no oxygen in the atmosphere, the sun’s UV rays were incredibly dangerous, and the ocean was quite acidic. Yet, even though this environment appears almost inhospitable, the coastlines and floodplains were teeming with life. Small microbes produced a sticky slime like substance, which formed microbial mats all over the ancient surface. With no animals to eat them, they were incredibly prolific and dominated the environment.

“These green wrinkles are the fossilized remains of the microbial mats that once covered the shorelines many billions of years ago.”

Cut to Mars between 3.5 and 4 billion years ago, during its Noachian age (“age of Noah”). During this time, the common thought is that Mars had large amounts of water on its surface, rivers flowing and scarring the surface forming large canyons, and long coastlines around a sea in its northern hemisphere. There was also no significant amount of oxygen in its atmosphere, and surface conditions on Mars were probably comparable to the Earth at the time. If the conditions were so similar, could life also have dominated its coastlines and floodplains?

This is the great question we still do not have an answer to. My project was aimed at imaging the fossil traces of the microbes that lived at this time through a camera identical to what the European Space Agency is sending up to Mars next year. The Close-Up Imager (or CLUPI) does exactly what its name describes. CLUPI can take pictures of rocks near it and will send back a high-resolution image of what it sees. I wanted to know what information we could gather through the CLUPI camera, and provide scientists with a catalogue of what microbial mats look like through CLUPI for the thousands of pictures they will receive once the rover is in action.

“This picture was taken with CLUPI, notice how you can see the green wrinkles split and rejoin and drape over bigger pebbles.”

Who knows what images we will receive in the next few years? Maybe this time we will find the evidence that we were not alone, and make us question just how common life in the universe really is!

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