Archaeology in Space: Searching for Life in Rocks

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer and Pedro Duque look at miniature life forms under the microscope with Charles Cockell during the Pangaea 2017 course at the University of Edinburgh's UK Centre for Astrobiology. Painting with light allows for much better views of cell features through the microscope. Pangaea is a planetary field geology course for astronauts.

ESA astronauts Pedro Duque and Matthias Maurer have completed geology training to prepare them to be effective partners of planetary scientists and engineers in designing future exploration missions.

This third and final part was dedicated to identifying habitats in rocks that could have hosted life.

At the University of Edinburgh's UK Centre for Astrobiology the astronauts learned from astrobiologist Charles Cockell how to look for signatures of past life as well as laboratory techniques for handling samples.

They analysed bacteria that had been flown to the International Space Station and returned after spending six months outside in the harsh vacuum of space - samples from ESA's Expose series of experiments that aim to understand how space radiation can influence life and organic chemicals.

ESA's Pangaea course designer, Loredana Bessone, explains, "When astronauts and rovers explore planets in our Solar System they will be the eyes and hands of scientists on Earth.

"Preparing for planetary excursions means understanding which techniques will best preserve the pristine state of samples for analysis. Once samples are back on Earth one cannot undo mistakes made in space.

"It is best to learn here on Earth and apply new ways to prevent and overcome problems in equipment design and operational procedures."

Holyrood Park and Arthur's Seat

Pedro and Matthias then took a field trip to Holyrood Park to apply their knowledge and search for likely places where life could hide within protected rock habitats and practise their sampling techniques, making sure to minimise contamination by following planetary protection guidelines.

Matthias says: "Exploration demands a strict protocol for identifying, sampling and transporting rock specimens. Astronauts need to learn how to avoid contaminating samples with human microbes and we need to develop the tools to do this efficiently while wearing bulky spacesuits and heavy gloves.

"We discussed which tools could help astronauts detect traces of life because we will not always have an astrobiologist with us. "

Pedro adds: "The challenges of taking samples without contaminating them are daunting, as we learned in Edinburgh. This will be made much more difficult by spacesuits when we study other planets, so it is essential we start learning now how to do it and what helping devices we will need."

Charles concludes: "Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary field that requires biologists and geologists to work together. We are very pleased to to share our experience so that we can better plan future planetary missions."

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