Journal articles

Underground Habitats in the Rio Tinto Basin: A Model for Subsurface Life Habitats on Mars

By Keith Cowing
January 9, 2009

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1023-1047.

A search for evidence of cryptic life in the subsurface region of a fractured Paleozoic volcanosedimentary deposit near the source waters of the Rio Tinto River (Iberian pyrite belt, southwest Spain) was carried out by Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) project investigators in 2003 and 2004. This conventional deep-drilling experiment is referred to as the MARTE ground truth drilling project. Boreholes were drilled at three sites, and samples from extracted cores were analyzed with light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), X-ray diffraction (XRD), and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Core leachates were analyzed with ion chromatography, and borehole fluids were analyzed with ion and gas chromatography. Key variables of the groundwater system (e.g., pO2, pH, and salinity) exhibit huge ranges probably due to surficial oxygenation of overall reducing waters, physical mixing of waters, and biologically mediated water-rock interactions.

Mineral distribution is mainly driven by the pH of subsurface solutions, which range from highly acidic to neutral. Borehole fluids contain dissolved gases such as CO2, CH4, and H2. SEM-EDS analyses of core samples revealed evidence of microbes attacking pyrite. The Rio Tinto alteration mechanisms may be similar to subsurface weathering of the martian crust and provide insights into the possible (bio)geochemical cycles that may have accompanied underground habitats in extensive early Mars volcanic regions and associated sulfide ores. Astrobiology 8, 1023-1047.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻