The iron- and sulfur-rich waters of Rio Tinto, a river in Spain, serve as a laboratory for studying possible life-bearing environments on Mars. Although the river's water is turned red by the high concentration of dissolved minerals, it still contains abundant microscopic life. Scientists study this and other Mars-like environments on Earth to learn more about the Red Planet and to develop the tools for looking for life on Mars. [NASA/JPL]
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Mars on Earth
You don’t have to travel millions of miles to see Mars. Sometimes, a few thousand will do the trick. That’s because scientists have found several locations right here on Earth that offer some of the same conditions as the surface of Mars. Studying these spots can help scientists and engineers prepare for missions to Mars itself, and understand the results of those probes.
These “Mars-on-Earth” locations are known as Mars analogs.
Some of them are extremely cold, such as Devon Island in far northern Canada. Volunteers spend several weeks there during the Arctic summer to see what it would be like to live on Mars.
Other spots are extremely dry, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile. Much of the region receives only a few sprinkles of rainfall each year, with some parts getting none at all.
And still other spots offer unusual chemistry like that seen in some parts of Mars.
For example, a river in Spain, Rio Tinto, is highly acidic and contains high levels of iron and other metals. The river contains bacteria that derive energy from the chemicals in the water. And salty deposits in and around the river also contain unusual living organisms. Similar conditions prevailed several billion years ago in the region of Mars that’s being studied by the Opportunity rover. That suggests that life could have evolved on ancient Mars — and could still inhabit the planet today.
One of the best Mars analogs is Antarctica, and we’ll have more about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013