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Telescopes and space missions

Is there life on Mars?

17 Nov 2015

In Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi blockbuster The Martian, our neighbouring planet is a dusty, inhospitable world. But is Scott’s film an accurate depiction of the Martian environment? If life could exist on this wasteland, what might it look like? And could an upcoming mission by the European Space Agency finally lead to some answers on that eternal question of whether we are alone in the universe?

In this November episode of the Physics World podcast, astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell addresses these big questions in a conversation with journalist James Dacey. Dartnell’s own research is concerned with examining the micro-organisms that can survive in some of the most extreme conditions here on Earth. By studying the physiology and survival tactics of these so-called extremophiles, astrobiologists hope to gain an understanding of the type of life that could survive in a place like the Martian surface – and where to look for these hardy little creatures on alien worlds.

Dartnell was speaking ahead of a public lecture he gave in London about the possibilities of life beyond the Earth. As well as discussing what we already know about the Martian surface, Dartnell talked about the new possibilities that will come with ExoMars, a mission by the European Space Agency (ESA) set for launch in 2018. Dartnell is working on the design of a Raman-spectroscopy instrument for that mission that will help examine the mineralogy of Mars and identify potential signs of life inside Martian rocks.

The talk was held in an underground tunnel near King’s Cross Station – a venue that resembles the kind of provisional habitat that humans would have to create should we attempt to live on Mars. Watch some highlights from that talk, along with reaction from the audience, in the video above. In addition, the November issue of Physics World is a special issue about extremes in physics, including a feature about how physicists are helping to uncover some of the mysteries of extremophiles on Earth. It includes more about Lewis’ favourite little critter: Deinococcus radiodurrans. Find out how to access that issue here.

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