Scientists closing in on secrets of Martian life
Two sets of experiments separated by millions of miles are moving Mars scientists closer to uncovering evidence that microbial life once existed on the Red Planet.
Earlier this week, academics at the University of Leicester joined forces with the Open University to publish a paper on past water conditions on Mars.
The study suggests that water once existed on the Red Planet's surface, which may have reached temperatures of up to 150C.
Similar conditions can be found at the volcanic thermal springs at Yellowstone National Park, in the US, where tiny microbes are known to live.
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Meanwhile, 140 million miles away, Curiosity – the Mars rover – is to begin drilling into Martian rock to extract information about its composition.
It will also be looking for evidence that the planet once supported simple-celled organisms before its protective magnetic field disappeared four billion years ago and the water vaporised.
The man linking both projects is Dr John Bridges, a reader in planetary science at the University of Leicester. He is part of the Nasa team charged with the latest mission to Mars.
Dr Bridges said: "Rovers on Mars are studying rocks to find out about the geological history of the Red Planet.
"Some of the most interesting questions are what we can find out about water, how much there was and what temperature it might have had."
This week, he published a joint paper about the subject in the journal of Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
He and Dr Susanne Schwenzer, from the Open University, described minerals found in Mars meteorites which showed signs of chemical reactions caused by water heating to 150C and then cooling to form clay.
Using powerful microscopes at the University of Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dr Bridges and Dr Schwenzer found small veins within meteorites filled with minerals formed by water heated near the planet's surface.
The team says the clay conditions are known to support microbial life.
Microbes use the reactions during mineral formation to gain energy and elements essential for their survival.
Dr Bridges said: "While the orbiters and Rovers are studying the minerals on Mars, we also have meteorites from Mars here on Earth."
On the Martian surface, Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is preparing to drill into the planet's bedrock for the first time since landing in August.
The one-tonne robot has been stationary for a month, scooping soil and analysing the atmosphere.
Mission deputy scientist Ashwin Vasavada expects Curiosity to be on the move in the "next few days".
"It's the bedrock which really gives you the story of ancient Mars," said Mr Vasavada, of the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California.
"The soil is harder to interpret because we don't know how old it is."
Rover touched down in Gale Crater, near the Martian equator, on its two-year mission.