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Mars, eh?

Canada’s important and growing contribution to Mars exploration



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Scientists can reliably assume that there was a time on Mars, maybe 700 million years ago, when temperatures were warmer, when volcanic activity may have created an atmosphere capable of retaining heat, and when liquid water coursed over the surface of the planet to create conditions that were generally optimal for life. Some believe that evidence of those Martian life forms may be found fossilized below the surface of Mars, just waiting for the right expedition to be uncovered.

Some even hold out for the possibility that some rudimentary forms of bacterial life are still there in the Martian soil, eking out a fragile existence despite the frigid temperatures, low air pressure and lack of water.

After all a group of organisms called extremophiles can be found surviving in the harshest conditions imaginable on Earth, embedded in arctic ice, swimming in the frigid waters surrounding scalding deep sea volcanic events, in acidic soils and pools, in caustic soils and pools, in radioactive slag heaps, in the pores of rocks, in the bottoms of the deepest caves, in the driest deserts, in concentrations of heavy metal that are toxic to most other forms of life, in the arid salt flats of Utah and South America, in areas where temperatures are over 60 degrees Celsius, and at fantastically high pressures in the sediments below the ocean floor. While Mars is certainly extreme, it also harbours enough of the basic building blocks of life to provide a home for various extremophiles.

The Pavilion Lake Research Project

One of Canada’s ongong contributions to Mars exploration is a joint University of British Columbia and NASA research project on Pavilion Lake, which is located between Lillooet and Cache Creek. Back in June, researchers used a single person submarine to explore the depths of the lake and collect samples of unique freshwater microbialites.

The microbialites are reef-like structures vaguely resembling brains that were likely formed by a unique type bacteria. They are rare, and are thought to resemble undersea structures from the early Cambrian period when life formed on earth.

The Pavilion Lake microbialites were first discovered in the year 2000, and can be found at depths of five metres to more than 60 metres. Some of the larger structures, about three metres tall, likely date back more than 11,000 years as glaciers in the area retreated. The find is unique to North America, and could give Mars researchers an idea “how the biological signatures of early life forms may be preserved in rock structures.”