One of the goals of today's missions to Mars is to hunt for life on the Red Planet -- either life today, or evidence of life in the distant past. And a recent study suggests that a place to look for ancient Mars life might be beds of salt.
The study was led by Jack Griffith of the University of North Carolina. The research team examined samples from thick beds of salt beneath the mesas of southeastern New Mexico. Using an electron microscope, they found long strands of cellulose -- the material that makes up the walls of most plant cells. The strands were about 250 million years old, making them some of the oldest biological samples ever directly imaged and analyzed.
The team suggested that similar strands might make good targets in the search for ancient life on other worlds -- especially Mars. Once the salt beds form, they can protect the cellulose fibers for hundreds of millions of years. What's more, the strands of cellulose can be fairly large. That makes them easy to pick out, and provides enough material for a detailed chemical analysis.
Several Mars landers have already detected salt mixed with the red Martian soil. The salt is in a granular form -- like the salt in the shaker on your kitchen table -- so it can't contain the cellulose fibers. But the salt grains must have eroded from thicker beds of salt. And according to the researchers, those beds are a good starting place in the search for Martian life.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.