Decoding Planetary Signatures
by Sarah Geegan
The mobile robotic rover Curiosity landed on Mars on Monday, Aug. 6, equipped with a suite of sophisticated scientific instruments to investigate Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Back at the University of Kentucky, Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor Christopher Romanek, a "top-ten" researcher in the field of Mars science from 1994 to 2004, will infuse the Curiosity's findings into his classes.
"With the suite of advanced instrumentation onboard MSL, we will search for organic carbon in more powerful ways and in places that were completely inaccessible previously," Romanek said. "Hopefully, the data returned will allow us to answer the question 'Are we alone in the universe?'"
Romanek is an expert on the geology and composition of Martian rocks and soil, which are the main focus of the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) many analytical capabilities. Having studied surface processes and the potential for microbial life on Mars for over 20 years, Romanek served as a co-investigator in a consortium funded by NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI), which explored the origin of life on Earth and the possibilities for life on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.
With the recognition that microorganisms inhabit every seemingly uninhabitable nook and cranny of earth’s surface, from hydrothermal deep sea vents to the permafrost of the polar regions, Romanek said that anywhere liquid water is found, the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system is not so far-fetched. Thus, the Curiosity's data will play a key role in his upcoming courses
"It is clear that over the next two years many exciting discoveries will be made by the Curiosity rover, and our students can be part of this process," Romanek said. "Witnessing these events in the classroom as they unfold will provide memories that last a lifetime. Moreover, the data returned from the MSL will form the basis for peer reviewed research we will use in the classroom for years to come."
As co-founder of NASA's Astrobiolgy Institute consortium, which also included researchers from George Washington University and the University of Wisconsin, Romanek's experience with NASA and Mars research dates back to the early 1990s.
Romanek was one of the first scientists to study the now controversial ALH84001 Martian Meteorite. His original contribution in the journal Nature on the formation temperature of unusual carbonate mineral assemblages in the ALH meteorite, as well as his follow up paper in Science magazine that proposed a biological origin for these features, sparked an international debate on the geological evidence required to verify a biological origin for extraterrestrial materials.
Interest in this topic, both from the scientific community and the public, resulted in new funding opportunities, including NASA’s Ancient Martian Meteorite Program and the Astrobiology Institute.
NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI) was established in 1998 to foster studies of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe. This includes how planetary processes give rise to life, how they sustain or inhibit life, and how life can emerge as an important planetary process.
The institute also investigates how astrophysical processes give rise to planets elsewhere and whether there are habitable planets outside of our solar system.
Romanek’s NAI research, which focuses on identifying and developing “biosignatures” for detecting life in the earliest part of Earth's history or on other planetary bodies, supports one post-doctoral associate and numerous graduate students at UK as well as visiting scholars from Spain, France, and Turkey. The UK research team is presently investigating geochemical signatures that provide insights into the environments of formation and origin of carbonate minerals that form at temperatures conducive to life.
“Our group hopes that upcoming satellite and rover discoveries will benefit from the work we are doing now in the laboratory through our NAI collaborations,” Romanek said.