This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
I was in Cambridge, UK this past week, for an Islam & Science symposium – more on that some other time. It was interesting to read the British newspapers there on various issues, ranging from Abbottabad to Manchester (United).
On Saturday (May 7), The Independent had a two-page story, with several big pictures (the one here below is one of them), titled “Life on Mars? No, but it’s the next best thing”.
The story described a site in Spain known as Rio Tinto (“Red River”) in Southern Andalusia (see the little map), which in many ways resembles Mars! Not only is its landscape rust-red from oxidized iron, it contains lots of craters, many of which result from centuries of mining.
For that reason, it is now being used by at least two space agencies for simulations of Mars missions, including walks with spacesuits. The European Space Agency has been testing the “Eurobot”, a robot with two arms and stereo vision which, mounted on a rover, can perform dangerous or difficult tasks. Also, the Austrian Space Forum has been testing some equipment there.
The newspaper described the site as “a convenient substitute for the Red Planet”, due to the many features that it shares with Mars. First and foremost, the highly mineral soil of the place, rich with iron, sulfur, copper, and gold – the reason for the extensive mining there. Secondly, the river is extremely acidic, with a pH of 0.7 (yes, that’s zero point 7), whereas the neutral level of acidity/alkalinity is 7.0 (seven point zero); the closer to 0 a liquid is, the more acidic. Indeed, this river’s water is so acidic that signs are posted to tell visitors to not even wash hands in it, let alone drink any of it.The reporter thus concludes that this place resembles an early version of Mars, before the red planet lost its surface water and its magnetic field.
The most interesting part of the story was that a peculiar bacterium has managed to thrive in such an extreme environment (such forms of life are usually referred to as “extremophiles”.) Even more interestingly, tests conducted by scientists in Madrid have shown that this organism can survive in the Martian conditions.
So one understands why, except for gravity (Mars’s is 37 % that of Earth), this place is ideal for conducting training of astronauts and robots, picking samples, searching for organisms, etc.
Readers of Irtiqa may recall that in my report from last February’s AAAS meeting, I had devoted a couple of paragraphs to talks that were given there on the search for extraterrestrial life, mostly focused on Mars, and I had referred to Andrew Steele’s The Search for Life on Mars: Mars Science Laboratory and Mars Sample Return, in particular.
One issue that had also been raised at that AAAS session was the problem of “contamination”, that is how to make sure that equipment from Earth is devoid of any bacteria or viruses, so that if when we analyze samples on the red planets, we do not mistake any hitch-hikers from Earth for Martian organisms. One of the exercises conducted in the simulations of Mars walks and sample collections in Rio Tinto is precisely this issue of contamination.
Another goal of these mock missions is to test the spacesuits and humans’ ability to function well inside them, including bodily functions, etc.
But when will a real mission to Mars actually take off? That depends on both budget and scientific/technical progress, but the date one usually hears is “sometime after 2030”. Anyone wants to guess?