SETG: Search for Extraterrestrial Genome on Mars
November 8, 2010 8 Comments
Many pathetic optimistic attempts have been made by scientific pioneers to detect at least ‘a single signature of life ‘ on other planets. With NASA funding, Carr and colleagues at MIT are developing a prototype device to decode alien DNA, a project known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes (SETG). They hope to fly an instrument as part of a joint NASA-European Space Agency mission to Mars slated to launch in 2018. When hypothesizing about life that may exist elsewhere in the universe, the tendency is to visualize something far different from life here on earth. But here in our galactic neighborhood, a team of MIT researchers argues, life it just as likely related to us.
The premise of their reasoning is this: It’s estimated that Mars and Earth have swapped a billion tons of rock over the course of their lifetimes. And some of the stow away microbes aboard those rocks could be quite hardy, surviving the trip. DNA is pretty durable as well. On the surface of Mars it wouldn’t last too long, but shielded from UV radiation DNA could lie dormant on Mars for a million years or so. So MIT’s DNA decoder will be designed to dig. If there ever was life on Mars, or if there are organics buried there from other origins – be they Earth or elsewhere – the Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes (SETG) should be able to isolate, amplify,and identify nucleic acids right there on the Mars, no return trip necessary. The technology is still a couple of years away from field tests in Chile’s Atacama Desert or in Antarctica, two of Earth’s analogs for the arid, cold deserts of Mars. If it passes muster there, it could be hunting the building blocks of life on the Red Planet by the dawn of the next decade.
A widely disseminated consensus is that there is no life on Mars as its atmosphere is full of UV radiation and no organic DNA could survive in such a rather harsh environment. Yet sampling soil from under a rock on Mars demonstrated that UV light was not inducing the LR activity detected. “Strong oxidants were present that destroy life and organics”. Findings by the Viking Magnetic Properties Experiment showed that the surface material of Mars contains a large magnetic component, evidence against a highly oxidizing condition. Further, three Earth-based IR observations, by the ESA orbiter failed to detect the putative oxidant in any amount that could cause the LR results, and, most recently, data from the Rover Opportunity have shown Mars surface iron to be not completely oxidized (ferric) – but to occur mostly in the ferrous form which would not be expected in a highly oxidizing environment.
We already have compelling evidences that suggests that there should be life on Mars. Huge advances in the research of extremophiles on Earth have added very strong import to the current context. Recently, an expert in soil science from the Netherlands communicated to the congress of the European Geosciences Union that the discovery of the recent detection of phyllosilicate clays on Mars may indicate pedogenesis processes, or soil (as opposed to regolith) development, extended over the entire surface of Mars. This interpretation views most of Mars surface as active soil, colored red, as on Earth, by eons of wide spread microbial activity.
However, this project is full of endeavour to detect alien life. The suggested strategies would be:
1. This should be designed so that it can detect almost any complex organic compound and biomarkers of extinct life, if there was any and gone extinct due to various planetary calamities, like lipids and other complex proteins.
2. The detector should be capable of detecting other complex compound like bizarre compounds of silicon, boron etc or co-ordination compounds that may be significant to alien life forms.
3. The omnipresence of intense orderliness and of structures and of events utterly improbable on a basis of thermodynamic equilibrium. Extreme departures from an inorganic steady-state equilibrium of chemical potential. This orderliness and chemical disequilibrium would to a diminished but still recognizable extent be expected to penetrate into the planetary surface and its past history as fossils and as rocks of biological origin.
4. Search for Order in chemical structures and sequences of structure. A simple gas chromatograph or a combined gas chromatograph – mass spectrometer instrument would seek ordered molecular sequences as well as chemical identities.
5.Looking and listening for order: A simple microphone is already proposed for other (meteorological) purposes on future planetary probes; this could also listen for ordered sequences of sound the presence of which would be strongly indicative of life. At the present stage of technical development a visual search is probably too complex; it is nevertheless the most rapid and effective method of life recognition in terms of orderliness outside the bounds of random assembly.
Enhope we’ll find aliens in 2018.