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Posted on Wednesday, February 28 - 2007

"Hunting for traces of life on Mars calls for two radically different strategies, says ASU professor Jack Farmer. Of the two, he says, with today's exploration technology we can most easily look for evidence for past life, preserved as fossil "biosignatures" in old rocks.Farmer is a pro..."

Hunting for traces of life on Mars calls for two radically different strategies, says ASU professor Jack Farmer. Of the two, he says, with today's exploration technology we can most easily look for evidence for past life, preserved as fossil "biosignatures" in old rocks.Farmer is a professor of geological sciences in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, where he heads the astrobiology program. He reported on his work Feb. 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco."Searching for extraterrestrial life must follow two alternative pathways, each requiring a different approach and tools," Farmer says."If we're looking for living organisms, we are doing exobiology.

But if we are seeking traces - biosignatures - of ancient life, it's better to call it exopaleontology."Unfortunately, he notes, "for the next 10 or 15 years, technology limitations will force us down the exopaleontology path." The core issue is accessibility. "To find living organisms on Mars," says Farmer, "you need to find liquid water. Because liquid water is unstable on the Martian surface today, that means going deep into the subsurface."Water saturates the ground in high latitudes north and south, and around both poles, only a few inches below the surface, Farmer explains. But this water remains frozen year round. "Environments with liquid water will likely lie far deeper, perhaps milesbelow the surface."Organisms have been found living in fractured rock, thousands of feet underground on Earth, Farmer notes. "But with current robotic technology, we simply can't drill that deep on Mars."Terrestrial deep drilling requires complex, heavy equipment, plus constant supervision and troubleshooting by human crews. Says Farmer, "We'll be lucky if, in the next decade or so, robotic drilling on Mars reaches a depth of a couple yards."So where does that leave us in the search for life on Mars? Farmer says our best choice is to pursue the exopaleontology path."Finding the signatures of an ancient Martian biosphere means exploring old rocks that might preserve traces of life for millions or billions of years," Farmer notes. Among the best places to look on Mars,he s...


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