For decades, scientists have been searching for an answer to the age-old question: Are we alone in the universe? Many of them have turned their attention to the planet Mars, including a team involving students from UC Santa Barbara.
Chris Temby is a recent UCSB graduate who, at the end of this past quarter, received his bachelor’s degree in physics with a minor in both astronomy and planetary sciences and history. Last year, he and his colleague Yael Brynjegard-Bialik, a current fourth-year physics major, joined the Agnostic Life Finding Association’s Mars exploration team (ALFA Mars) — a program funded by the Foundation For Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME ) — and have since been swept up in the search for extraterrestrial life.
ALFA Mars is working to create an Agnostic Life Finder (ALF) device, which ultimately aims to filter Martian water in order to collect, sort and identify potential microbes and organic molecules, particularly DNA or other heritable material.
Not only would ALF work by separating molecules by size, but it would also separate them by charge using an electric field. This is a crucial detail because our hereditary material, DNA, is negatively charged, and thus would be attracted to a positive electrode.
“The phosphodiester backbone of this DNA is a repeating negative charge, and that’s important for multiple reasons,” Temby said. “Basically, the general scientific community believes in the polyelectrolyte theory of the gene, [which says that for] any informational structure, that would be the biomolecule that would be the [heritable material], … should always have a repeating charge on it.”
He explained that DNA on Earth just so happens to have a repeating negative charge, but it’s not necessarily negative. Other structures that don’t have a repeating charge, like proteins, can fold over on themselves — something necessary for them to gain their correct structure and function. For DNA, however, this folding would not be optimal due to the need for clear access to the nucleotides for cellular processes to occur.
In short, if the genetic material could be identified and isolated, scientists would be able to study it in a lab setting and figure out its origins.
So where would the water that ALF would work to filter come from? It is widely believed that there is a large subsurface reservoir of water and ice on Mars and that this water will soon be found and harnessed. Temby also mentioned the 2008 Phoenix lander, which found ice within an inch of the Martian surface. As water cannot exist stably on the surface of the planet, this would be a massive step toward possible Martian exploration and colonization. Finding a substantial water source on Mars would enable the extraction and use of the water in in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is essentially a system that will allow astronauts to use Martian resources and eliminate the need for complete dependence on those brought from Earth.
“NASA or SpaceX is going to want to send humans there, but in order to send humans to Mars the idea would be that you have a way to get them back before they even get there … [and] in order to do that you need to have a rocket full of fuel, and even in order to do that, you need to have rocket fuel,” Temby said. “People don’t want to send a rocket full of rocket fuel because that’s really expensive, so the better option is to make rocket fuel on Mars.”
He went on to explain that the way astronauts would ultimately be able to create their own rocket fuel from resources on Mars would be to use the Sabatier reaction. This reaction takes water and separates it into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be combined with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create methane, to be used as fuel, and purified water for the astronauts to drink. This Martian water is therefore the key to Mars exploration for humans, according to Temby.
He added that his team hopes to be able to send ALF to Mars even before anyone starts trying to harness water for energy.
“People are going to have to mine tons of Martian water, literally tons of it, so why don’t we just send a little device that’s as big as this napkin holder — pretty small — [which will] take a couple of watts of power per day … and basically is just an add-on to the whole ISRU infrastructure to mine tons of Martian water,” Temby said. “Before you do this whole reaction and processing, let’s just sample some of it and look for life on Mars.”
Since the Viking landers of 1976, there hasn’t been much work in the life-detection field, partially due to the controversy created by the missions’ inconclusive results regarding whether life has existed on Mars at all. ALFA Mars, however, aims to change that.
Temby predicts that if life were found on Mars, it would upend countless human belief systems and areas of knowledge, including those of religion and philosophy. “It would disrupt a lot of religious paradigms,” he said.
He mentioned that the discovery of life on Mars would also have great implications for the field of biochemistry.
“Right now in the field of astrobiology, we only have one example of what life is in the universe: We have life on Earth, and that’s it. Some of it uses RNA, and some of it uses DNA, but that’s all we have,” he said.
He said that with a second example of biology, we’ll finally be able to better understand “universal truths” and even be able to make assumptions about possible life on other planets.
In the case that life is found on Mars, one of the major questions will be how to tell that it indeed evolved there and didn’t come from somewhere else. One possibility is always that the microbes could be a result of planetary contamination from Earth due to improper sanitization of ships, but Temby doesn’t think that is very likely.
He does, however, believe that there is a good chance that if there is life on Mars, it would be very similar to life on Earth.
“A lot of the minerals that are believed to be really important in the making of life on Earth are found on Mars … But the real question is would [the heritable material] be DNA or would it not be DNA?” he said.
Nevertheless, Temby believes there is a pretty good chance we could see humans on Mars within the next 20 years and possibly even an entire colony by the end of this century. Once humans get to Mars, and if they happen to discover life forms, next steps would include ensuring that it actually is Martian genetic material, sequencing DNA or other material if it is and ultimately recovering a full genome.
However, before any of that can occur, the team first needs to test the ALF technology on Earth in an environment that might approximate conditions on Mars. Ideally, the plan is for some of the team, likely Temby and potentially Brynjegard-Bialik, to go to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic for four weeks this summer to help refurbish the research station there, field-test ALF and do general landscape surveys. Temby would likely also serve as mission scientist, helping to produce vlog-style videos to capture the process of this initial phase.
Of course, such plans can be expensive. To send just one person to the Arctic this summer would require up to $25,000. They already have a few thousand dollars secured as well as some pledged support from the Mars Society and FfAME. In addition, they are engaging in fundraising activities in the local community.
They also hope to be able to send a group of five to six ALFA Mars students from all over the world to Devon Island next summer to do physical, physiological, geological and microbiological testing.
“We just need money,” Temby said. “For this year, it’s a time crunch … but for next year we’re trying to get bigger corporate sponsorships.”
Financial challenges aside, Temby remains confident regarding the potential implications of finding life on Mars.
“I think it would be the most profound scientific discovery of all time,” he said. “It seems like one of the oldest questions that humanity could ever ask is ‘Are we alone?’”
CORRECTION [5/7/23, 9:43 a.m.]: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the group of scientists and students attempting to look for life on Mars was called “Alpha Mars.” This article has been corrected to reflect that the group is actually named “The Agnostic Life Finding Association (ALFA Mars)”. Additionally, the article now includes a link to the organizations website for readers who are interested in learning more.