On Wednesday, NASA revealed a new gully on the Red Planet. Appearing similar to rivers on earth, officials believe that the dark streaks known as recurring slope lineae are recent, and were likely formed between early November 2010 and late May 2013. The difference in the photographs taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show a new streak in a region called Terra Sirenum.
The pictures were captured by what NASA calls HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, which is one of six similar devices on the MRO. The new gully reveals evidence that a seasonal change in a short amount of time probably caused carbon dioxide frost heavy in iron minerals to carve the ravine in the mid-latitudes on Mars, a feature that is also seen in the southern highlands. Since the images were shot more than a year apart according to the Martian calendar, NASA’s observations about what the MRO revealed is not something that can be accurately measured.
Discoveries about the Red Planet go back to the invention of the telescope in the 1600s, and ever since then speculation has been more rampant than actual investigation and scientists have imagined everything from the features of the environment to the possibility of ancient civilizations. America’s personal relationship with Mars has been fairly recent and with a high rate of failure. Two-thirds of the experiments have not completed their missions, and some without any observations gathered at all. Luckily for the scientific world, however, the twin Rovers have continued to operate far beyond NASA’s expectations.
For years, the Opportunity and the Curiosity, from the Mars Exploration Rover mission and the Mars Science Laboratory mission respectively, have been sending signals back to earth with vital information about the terrain. The Opportunity was scheduled to collect information for 90 days of Martian time and has since lasted for 10 earth years. Curiosity landed in 2012, and as of January, NASA declared that the new intention of both Rovers would be to search for any verifiable evidence of life.
Discoveries are hopeful to find proof of autotrophs, or self-feeders, which is a microbe capable of taking energy from light or inorganic chemical reactions to create organic compounds to sustain itself. Scientists might also discover chemotrophs, which take electrons from habitats like deep-sea vents and harvest energy from chemicals like ferrous iron, elemental sulfur, hydrogen sulfide, molecular hydrogen, and ammonia. NASA is alternatively looking for what are called eaters of rock, or chemolithoautotrophs, a microbe that can feed off of compounds reduced from mineral origin. Some of these creatures are known as extremophiles for their ability to survive in environments that are uninhabitable without advanced adaptation.
The J. Craig Venter Institute carries a staff of 250 scientists and researchers who study everything from evolutionary biology to DNA sequencing and information technology, and because up until now no missions to Mars have ever returned any samples for examination by NASA, and the one that they attempted failed, the Institute and its founder have come upon an interesting solution that seems as far-fetched as the notion of civilizations on the Red Planet.
Venter believes that through careful analyzing techniques, possible DNA from Mars perhaps found in a similar gully as those newly revealed by NASA, could essentially be “faxed” back to earth for study and recombinant sequencing. The approach of transporting the information digitally is something that is now achieved by molecular labs and companies who synthesize and convert such information, and the idea from Venter is that the same could be achieved with extraterrestrial life.
Lynn Rothschild of the NASA Ames Research Center is quick to warn about the alteration made by any chemical process unique to earth, such as specific amino acids, and that such life would be a far cry from its original form and would increase the risk of infectivity. Astrobiologist Penny Boston also pointed out that anything that is created is inherently alien life and therefore must be strictly confined while it is being studied, as with any samples brought back from lunar missions.
While others postulate that Martian life might not even use DNA, and therefore cannot be replicated by foreseeable scientific methods, the new gully revealed on the surface of Mars is another step by NASA to solidify the human imagination about the Red Planet and its mysteries.
By Elijah Stephens