Visions of Life on Mars in Earth’s Depths

Sep 14, 2016

By Kenneth Chang

WITWATERSRAND BASIN, South Africa — A mile down in an unused mine tunnel, scientists guided by helmet lamps trudged through darkness and the muck of a flooded, uneven floor.

In the subterranean world of the Beatrix gold mine, they shed their backpacks, taking out tools and meticulously prepared test tubes to collect samples.

Leaning a ladder against the hard rock wall, Tullis C. Onstott, a geosciences professor at Princeton, climbed to open an old valve about a dozen feet up.


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3 comments on “Visions of Life on Mars in Earth’s Depths

  • @OP link – These tiny life-forms — bacteria and other microbes and even little worms — exist in places nearly impossible to reach, living in eternal darkness, in hard rock.

    Organisms living by chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis have been found in various extremophile habitats on Earth, but they all have cells with DNA evolved on Earth.

    As meteor impacts on planets, can throw materials into space where the debris can fall on to other planets or moons, it may be possible for life to have moved naturally from one planet to another.
    It would have to be quite resilient and probably dormant, to survive the chance encounter and impact of landing, but experiments on the ISS have shown a percentage of Tardigrades can survive the vacuum and radiation of space for extended periods.



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  • Re: Visions of life on Mars in earth’s depths.

    Hi, I’m a highschool student who’s interested in journalism, and I read your article that was published by the New York Times earlier this week. I have some follow up questions about the story and your research process. Your story interests me because I’m optimistic that we can eventually find a way to inhabit Mars ourselves. The fact that life may have thrived on Mars at an earlier point in time only makes the possibility all more real.

    So firstly, why are Tullis C. Onstott and his team exploring the Beatrix mine in South Africa In particular?

    Also, what’s the correlation between methane and early lifeforms in the Beatrix mine, and why can it be connected to Mars?

    And finally, why should we be hopeful, yet skeptical that we can find life on Mars?

    Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon.
    Julia M.



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  • Julia Mcgovern #2
    Sep 18, 2016 at 9:57 pm

    Perhaps I can help.

    Re: Visions of life on Mars in earth’s depths.

    So firstly, why are Tullis C. Onstott and his team exploring the Beatrix mine in South Africa In particular?

    Bacteria and other life forms deep underground on Earth, live by chemosynthesis without the sunlight which powers the plant life on the surface of Earth, providing energy for all the other life which feeds on plants.

    Also, what’s the correlation between methane and early lifeforms in the Beatrix mine, and why can it be connected to Mars?

    The earliest life forms on Earth lived in an atmosphere which contained no oxygen, and lived on the energy from chemicals in a way similar to anaerobic organisms and extremophyles today.
    Until photosynthesis using sunlight evolved in Cyanobacteria, – living off energy from reactions in chemical compounds, was the only energy source for life.

    And finally, why should we be hopeful, yet skeptical that we can find life on Mars?

    The surface of Mars is a very hostile environment for most Earth type life. The atmospheric pressure is about 1% of that of Earth, most of it is carbon dioxide, the temperatures are colder than the Arctic in most places, The sunlight is very dim because Mars’ orbit is further out, and there is strong damaging radiation from space on the exposed surface of Mars.

    The evidence is that early Mars had a much denser atmosphere and liquid water ,before it lost most of its atmosphere to space, and the remaining water froze into solid ice.

    It is possible that conditions suitable for evolving life, may have existed on early Mars, and if any evolved, there is a slight chance it could have survived in some places underground.

    However, Mars no longer has the sort of movement of crustal plates or volcanism, which provides the chemicals in deep sea hydrothermal vents on Earth, nor does it have the rain or surface water, which seeps deep into the ground to these organisms in and around the rocks in these deep mines.

    It is also remotely possible, that some life could have been carried from Earth to Mars by a meteorite which originated in debris flung into space by some asteroid or comet impacting Earth.

    If you are looking to research information, NASA’s website about Mars rovers, orbiters, and landers, and that of the enthusiasts of the Mars Society, would give a wider perspective.



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