Salukis search for life on Mars

By Austin Miller, @AMiller_DE

Mankind may soon know if we are not alone in the universe.

NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan believes some form of alien life will be found in the near future.

“I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years,” Stofan said during a recent NASA panel.


With that search in mind, some SIU members are helping to answer the question.

Justin Filiberto, an assistant professor of geology, hosted a workshop in November at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston to look at the amount of volatiles in the interior of Mars. He published the results earlier this month.

Volatiles are elements that prefer to be liquids or gasses, such as water, carbon dioxide, chlorine and fluorine, which lower the melting point of rocks and make volcano eruptions more explosive.

The volatiles that are shot out during eruptions determine the planet’s atmosphere.

Chlorine is a prominent volatile on Mars since there is no flowing water. High levels of chlorine on Mars are located near volcanoes, which leaves Filiberto to believe it comes from volcanic eruptions, not from evaporated oceans.

James Conder, an associate professor of geology, said Mars has an ancient history of volcanic activity, despite not having any tectonic activity, or shifting plates.

Hot spot volcanism works like a lava lamp, where a blob comes up through the mantle, burning a hole through the crust, creating a volcano. Conder said this is how Hawaii was created and Mars operates the same way.


“Mars is much smaller than Earth, so it is debated whether there is any convection [the force that drives plate tectonics] going on now,” Conder said. “It certainly had a lot of convection in the past, like Earth does now, but it’s possible that it might be pretty much done.”

Mars is home to Olympus Mons: the largest known volcano in the solar system, which is three times as tall as Mount Everest and as wide as France.

Filiberto said because these elements and life are present on Earth, scientists can study if volatiles directly created life here. Studying the other planets and how they formed helps teach about Earth’s formation and how it was able to support life.

“Even if we don’t find life or habitable environments on another planet, that still answers the question of why are we alone and how did life form here,” he said. “[Mars] was, at least in places, habitable, so the question then is, was something living there?”

With the only examples of life currently on Mars being robotic rovers, scientists rely on those observations and meteorites to study the planet.

Filiberto said most of the studied meteorites come from north West Africa because the little, black rocks are easier to find in a desert. Natives will round up the rocks and sell them to meteorite dealers who then sell them or pieces to scientists. He said Martian rocks are found nearly every year, but only one has been observed falling in the last 50 years.

Filiberto has a little sliver of a 180 million-year-old meteorite in his drawer. Despite its ancient origins, the rock is actually young, in geological time.

“When you think of [Earth] being 4.6 billion years old, it’s quite young,” he said.

Ben Farcy, a graduate student from Highland Park studying geology, was one of the presenters at the conference, and based his master’s thesis on chlorine in the Martian interior. He said he agrees with Stofan that life will be found somewhere other than Earth in the near future.

“We’re not going to see big whales or three-legged toads swimming around somewhere,” he said. “To us, we’re the kings of the universe because we’re the only ones that exist in the universe. Once you start to realize it’s very possible with our next door neighbors, you think about how many next-door neighbors we haven’t even knocked on the door of.”

Instead of green, round-headed aliens, they would be microscopic bacteria able to survive the harsh climate of another planet.

Farcy accepted an internship with NASA this summer to study astrobiology, which looks at whether or not life on Earth could have come from other planets, attached to meteorites.

“It’s possible that life, at one point, existed on the Martian surface, was blasted off, traveled to Earth on one of these meteorites and possibly started the tree of life we have today,” he said. “It’s crazy, but it’s possible.”

Austin Miller can be reached at [email protected]