PNNL scientist joins the hunt for signs of ancient life on Mars

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By Tom Rickey, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The search for signs of ancient life on Mars has come to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where an expert on rock chemistry and microbial signatures is part of a team that is investigating whether there has ever been life on the red planet.

Sherry Cady, a scientist at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory on the PNNL campus, is taking part in research advancing the types of detection strategies that could support the search for fossilized life on Mars. Rovers that are being developed to probe for fossilized signs of life will be sent to Mars in 2020 by the NASA and European ExoMars programs.

Cady’s knowledge about how signs of microbial life on Earth have been captured and recorded in the geologic record will contribute to the roadmap scientists will use to explore the possibility that life once existed on Mars.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission will give scientists an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the question of life there. The mission will put a vehicle like the much-heralded Curiosity rover on Mars. The rover — chock full of cameras, sensors and instruments — will collect rock samples for analysis for potential return to Earth as part of a subsequent mission.

“The rover mission control team has to ask whether an environment could have supported microbial life and if there is a high likelihood that evidence of that life could have been preserved,” said Cady, a geomicrobiologist, who is joining scientists from the SETI Institute on the project.

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