New age of exploration in the hunt for extreme life

Lake Ellsworth Lake Ellsworth is extremely remote

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A two-billion-dollar robot scoops up pale-red samples on the surface of Mars to search for chemical clues in the powdery grains of the alien soil.

At the same time, British scientists brave a notoriously windswept plain in Antarctica to investigate an ancient lake lying hidden beneath the ice-sheet.

The two missions are exploring different planets but they share a similar aim: to understand the limits of life, one of the most fascinating questions in modern science.

In the arid dust of Gale Crater on Mars, Nasa's Curiosity rover is hunting for evidence about whether conditions in the now-dry valleys and stream-beds might ever have allowed anything to thrive.

A briefing on Monday did not yield the "history-making" results one scientist had promised, but showed how the instruments had found a mix of complex substances in a promising area.

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Both projects are remote, involve journeys into the unknown and rely on a fundamental scientific principle in the search for life: the need for water.”

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Meanwhile, in the deathly white of Antarctica, the British researchers are also hoping to make history: they are about to drill through two miles of ice to reach the pitch-black waters of Lake Ellsworth to see if organisms have survived in isolation for up to half a million years.

One expedition is being managed across the vastness of space, with scientists in California coping with a 20-minute delay to contact and remote-control their machine on Mars; the other requires hands-on skill and fortitude for the extreme challenge of operating in the penetrating cold.

Both projects are remote, involve journeys into the unknown and rely on a fundamental scientific principle in the search for life: the need for water.

Key connection

According to Professor Martin Siegert of Bristol University, the chief scientist of the Lake Ellsworth mission, water is the connection that binds the expeditions. I spoke to him before he flew South.

He said: "In both places we're looking to see if water is all you need for life or is there something else?

"We're both asking the same question: have we understood the physical limits of life?

"This really is a frontier of knowledge, a fundamental question of scientific curiosity."

Another similarity is the need for sterility. Any search for life or for clues about it relies on being sure that the mission itself has not contaminated the hunt.

In April last year, in a clean room at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, I watched white-suited engineers gingerly assembling Curiosity. If any bacteria have survived the decontamination and the journey to Mars, they could cast doubt on whatever the rover might find.

The importance of this was made clear last night.

In a briefing, Nasa scientists announced that Curiosity had detected organic compounds - complex molecules containing carbon, without which no known life can develop.

Rocknest Curiousity is analysing Martian soil samples

But they stressed that at this stage they could not be sure where those "organics" had come from - possibly from the spacecraft itself or from meteorites showering the Martian surface.

And every option has to be ruled out before the researchers will acknowledge that these vital chemical building-blocks might be "indigenous" or home grown and therefore open a door to the possibility of life on Mars.

This was not quite the "history-making" announcement that one of the scientists had suggested last week. But the search goes on and the rover has enough power to last two years with ancient streams and the slopes of a mountain to explore.

Basic life forms

Last January I saw another clean room in operation: this time at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton where the drilling and sampling components for Lake Ellsworth were being sterilised.

Again, the task was critically important. The search for microbial life beneath the ice would be wrecked if some organism was brought south in the equipment and confused any results about what might be found there.

Now the boilers, the massive hose, the winding system, the sampling probes and the full team are on site in a huddle of tents and shipping containers, this temporary settlement itself the only sign of life for hundreds of miles.

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If life can thrive in the dark, in isolation, in temperatures no warmer than -13C, where else could it be on Earth and beyond, on distant planets or moons for example?”

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Next week, if all goes according to plan, a small mountain of snow will be melted, repeatedly sterilised and then injected in a high-pressure stream of near-boiling water to clear a bore-hole through the two miles of the ice-sheet.

Sometime in mid December, sampling devices will be lowered through the ice, lights picking out the descent for HD cameras, down into the black depths of the lake.

According to Prof Siegert, it would be "extraordinary" if the samples did not reveal signs of microbial life.

And the chances of finding it were boosted last week by research in another inhospitable polar corner.

A US team investigating Lake Vida in Antarctica's Dry Valleys reported finding life in the "syrupy brine" flowing through cracks in the frozen body of the lake - and this despite the conditions being pitch-black and six times saltier than seawater.

The researchers detected "abundant cellular life" which was "metabolically active", according to Alison Murray of the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. "This gives us a perspective," she said, "that life can exist and be sustained for thousands of years without any influence from the surface."

So if life can thrive in the dark, in isolation, in temperatures no warmer than -13C, where else could it be on Earth and beyond, on distant planets or moons for example?

Last week also brought news from Mercury that even this scorched rock, orbiting closest to the Sun, has billions of tonnes of water frozen in the shadows.

Endless fascination

There was even speculation about a dark material on the tiny planet that could conceivably contain the same organic molecules being hunted on Mars, the carbon-based building blocks that are essential to all life.

So what drives this endless fascination?

Prof Siegert is clear: "it's about fundamental exploration, our natural curiosity."

And he likens the interest in the current wave of expeditions to the public's excitement about science in the 19th century. Whipped up by Charles Darwin's new perspective on life and by visions of lost worlds conjured up by Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that was an age of discovery.

"And in 100 years we'll look back at this time as an age of pure exploration when you can't predict what you will find.

"It's about opening up new frontiers."

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Yes your models predict things ... but it is not reality.

    What you are really saying is that you prefer the certainty of something you know not to be reality, then to investigate reality.

    And this is indeed the dominant cultural brainwashing that has turned you into a slave.

    The Greeks were not so small minded.

    The best ? At what ? Creating a dying planet ? Or the 24,000 nuclear weapons ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Every time man discovers something... forgetting who might have covered it before. Man presumes too much.. and in the end forget to believe. Yes, all that is there but we owe our homage to the designer of this entire universe,i believe. much isn't known yet, and too much will never be known. But one thing remains, all is a MYSTERY! MAN IS NOTHING..MUCH AS HE THINKS TO BE AT THE CENTER OF EVERTHING

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    A critical aspect of modelling is that it is based off "real" observations hence why these models have testable predictions. I would never say that any and all models in science today are right theyre just the best we currently have and untill observations force the adoption of a something better then they are to be regarded as true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    You are moving away from logic and into rhetoric

    How can modelling lead to objective reality ? Inherent in modelling is the acceptance that it is not objective. That's clear.

    The only additional question is whether it is possible to know reality in a way that avoids modelling.

    At a psychological level we are conditioned with cultural beliefs. If you don't have self-awareness you are its slave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I choose to be a little cautious when somone talks as if they are a "free thinker" more often than not they are just trying to say something contrary. If you wish not to believe in an objective reality or our ability to perceive one then fine but please do not demean the rest of humanity with the label of slave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.


    You think you are a meat machine because science models man this way.

    But the model is not reality.

    Now you want to find something to celebrate about the meat machine and throw a party

    And how do you come to have these concepts in your head ? They have been stuffed in their since birth- clearing out anything of value you may have originally had

    Slaves threw a little party when fed too

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    imagine so much time and effort to find something so banile - under the ice. Mars now that is something else but the problem with scientists is they have their main eye on what their collegues think. This is where promotion and career sucess lies. As a result more often than not the really important things are missed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    How would being a "meat machine" make me a slave, save to the laws of physics themselves? I simply state that it is easy to say the human spirit is talked down by reductionists but one could just as easily phrase it romantically and say we are stardust (which is technically true).

    On the subject of the Lake Vida discovery it yet again shows how wonderously tenacious life is. :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Re We are meat machines..

    I worked on Strong AI through most of the 1990's and one of the things that emerged quite firmly was that the brain as ordinary science stands should not have nearly enough processing power to work. A solution and answer is that the brain uses a kind of quantum computation trick - effectively a kind of 'precognition'. Are we meat or spirit? difficult one, kind of both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    i really wish we would focus our energy on looking after this planet instead of worrying about other places in the universe...

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    If they do find something I just hope they tell us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    58. DDes Currie - "I believe, life only exists on Earth".

    Why be so narrow minded? I believe life exists on earth - we have ample EVIDENCE. There may or may not be life elsewhere, but I await the EVIDENCE with interest. Funny that only a few years ago, it was pure speculation that other solar systems existed and now scientific EVIDENCE shows that they are abundant in our galaxy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Someone tells you you are a meat machine - and you thank them ?

    During times of slavery the masters would hand out crumbs of food and the slaves would thank them, too

    Strange and impressionable humans are. You can make them believe anything is gold, even their own slavery - if you give them impoverished ideas of themselves

    The more you impoverish a human, the desperate and grateful he becomes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    #49 rideforever
    "The big religions have done a lot of harm.

    But they never invented the Nuclear Bomb."

    One day at any time the Earth may be threatened by a major asteroid collision. - If that happens really the only thing that could save us is nuclear bomb technology. Try stopping a real 1 km diameter asteroid with prayer and see how far it gets you.. :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    @52 rideforver "That's all you are - according to science. A meat machine.

    Lovely people scientists"

    I would like to make clear I am proud to be a meat machine. The intracacy and complexity of consiousness and life, of any sort, all the more wonderous.
    In a toss up between Keats and Newton I firmly believe the rainbow is more beautiful explained.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    If, as I believe, life only exists on Earth then the ancients in their wisdom are right, and Earth is truly the center of the universe. Where else could it be?
    Des Currie

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.


    55 fuzzy

    I agree with you - if all you know is concepts, then a conceptual model of reality (which is non-real) is all you can investigate.
    I'm not sure there is a reality. That a universe can exist seems absurd, but then, when you think about it, so does the opposite! Maybe it's always becoming? We're all made of nothing, like the universe. Sorry but must go now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    55 fuzzy

    I agree with you - if all you know is concepts, then a conceptual model of reality (which is non-real) is all you can investigate.

    So one approach to deal with this unsatisfactory situation is to investigate the mind and see if it can connect to something that is real and beyond conceptual models.

    Do you see how that is logical ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.


    However, the model is not the universe.

    Think carefully on what this means lest you waste your life reading Richard Dawkins books.
    The models we create must use concepts (particles, waves etc) our brains have evolved to understand, that's the best we can do, and it's fine. If you want to waste time try reading a holy book. Love Socrates and his method. Trying to do it better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Science does indeed enable us to create a model of the universe.

    However, the model is not the universe.

    Think carefully on what this means lest you waste your life reading Richard Dawkins books.

    Only a rare man like Socrates is sane, he said : " The only thing I know is that I know nothing ".

    He was more than a scientist and more than priest ... he was just sane.


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