Feature Stories

Beyond Earth

Researchers develop techniques to detect evidence of life on other planets
  • colorful image of marine life attached to hydrothermal vent

Eventually, teams like Holden's hope to create a library for NASA so that crawling rovers on Mars or a swimming rover in the seas of Saturn or Jupiter’s moons can recognize what they are encountering.

Scientists think that some of the earliest life on Earth originated near deep-sea volcanoes, where living organisms can exist without sunlight or oxygen, says UMass Amherst microbiologist Jim Holden, “These organisms live at very high temperatures and feed on hydrogen, carbon dioxide, sulfur and iron from the vents.” An expert in high-temperature microbes, Holden will use a new $635,000 grant from NASA to develop spectroscopy techniques to detect evidence of life beyond Earth.

Holden will work with mineralogist Darby Dyar at Mount Holyoke College on the project.

Holden says, “Darby and I met years ago and she told me that she couldn’t recognize signs of past life in the Martian rocks that she was studying due to insufficient databases. My lab’s work in deep-sea hydrothermal vents provides microbes from extraterrestrial analog environments that will help address this question. Our funding comes from NASA’s exobiology program, which is focused on the search for life beyond Earth. They need to know what to look for and how to detect it.”

“We think similar environments may have existed on Mars and may still exist on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This funding will help us develop techniques to detect and distinguish the different types of microbial life using remote sensing. The instruments are already on the Mars rovers and will likely be used on future missions to Mars and elsewhere.”

Eventually, Holden says, teams like his and Dyar’s hope to create a library for NASA so that crawling rovers on Mars or a swimming rover in the seas of Saturn or Jupiter’s moons can recognize what they are encountering.

Holden’s graduate student Srishti Kashyap, who worked on his previous NASA grant and who now has a NASA fellowship plus a Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellowship in pioneering aerospace research to support her doctoral work, will play a key role in this work. She will be joined by undergraduates and masters’ students on both campuses.

Holden says that in addition to exobiology, the project has long-term applications for environmental science and in fields such as food safety and healthcare by developing techniques for the rapid detection of microbes in the environment, food and patients.

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