Fire and Ice . . . and Methane – Exploring Mars and Titan using laboratory and field analogues on Earth
May 19 & 20
The search for life elsewhere in the solar system has tantalized humanity for centuries. This search has led us to look outward, towards places that may have life (Mars) or the chemical precursors for life (Titan). This search has also led us inward, recreating other worlds in the laboratory and studying places on Earth that can act as analogue environments to other places that are more difficult to reach.
Titan, a moon of Saturn, is an excellent example of a ‘prebiotic’ world where a diverse array of organic molecules exist, but life as we know it cannot survive on the surface. The liquid hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, composed primarily of methane and ethane, are a unique environment where these organic molecules have the opportunity to interact – and possibly react – with each other. By recreating Titan’s lakes in the laboratory, we are discovering new chemical interactions that were previously unknown to science, and which may help us understand how Titan came to be.
Iceland, a Nordic island shaped by volcanism and glaciers, is recognized as an analogue environment for Mars due to its similar geochemistry and mineralogy. Through an international collaboration inspired by the NASA Nordic Astrobiology Summer School, we have successfully completed two field expeditions to Iceland to test life detection techniques that may be used on future Mars missions. We discovered that microbial diversity can vary widely, even in areas that appear to be the same in terms of geology. This has implications for where and how we might search for life on Mars.
Dr. Morgan Cable
Assistant Project Science Systems Engineer, Cassini Mission, JPL
Technologist, Instrument Systems Implementation and Concepts Section, JPL