Astrobiology (general)

Scientists Begin Mars Exploration in a Deep Mine

By Keith Cowing
April 6, 2014
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Scientists Begin Mars Exploration in a Deep Mine

This week, twenty European scientists will gather at Boulby mine in the UK to begin testing technologies for the exploration of Mars and hunting for deep subsurface life that will aid scientists in their search for extraterrestrial life.

The scientists are part of an exciting new European space exploration programme called MASE (Mars Analogues for Space Exploration) which will investigate how life adapts to Mars-like environments, such as the deep subsurface.

Boulby Mine, a 1.3 km-deep potash mine on the North East coast of England, offers the ideal environment to test procedures and technology required for the surface and subsurface exploration of Mars, whilst carrying out a programme of scientific research to understand life in the deep subsurface of the Earth. In the process of doing this, new insights will be gained in technology transfer from the space exploration sector to the mining industry to improve mining safety and profitable mineral extraction, ensuring that space exploration and technologies directly benefit life here on Earth.

As a Mars analogue environment, Boulby mine’s ecosystem has particular features and organisms that are of great interest for astrobiology in general and the MASE project in particular. Professor Charles Cockell, scientific coordinator of the MASE programme and Director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology said, ‘If we want to successfully explore Mars, we need to go to Mars-like places on Earth. The deep, dark environment of Boulby mine is the ideal place to understand underground life and test space technologies for the exploration of Mars. In the process, we hope to aid the transfer of high technology from space exploration to safe, effective mining’.

The MASE programme is scientifically coordinated by the UK Centre for Astrobiology, which, in conjunction with Boulby Mine and the Science and Technology Facilities Councils (STFC) Boulby Underground Laboratory, also runs the MINAR (Mine Analogue Research) programme at Boulby, a programme to study how space technologies can be transferred into the mining sector at the same time as being used to explore the deep subsurface for life.

The MASE FP7 project and the related MINAR programme activities at Boulby are made possible by the cooperation of and support from the Boulby Mine operators, Cleveland Potash Limited, and the mineral owners of the substantial undersea mineral deposits, The Crown Estate.

The Press conference will take place on Friday April the 4th in the morning and will be broadcasted and tweeted. Journalists from Europe will attend and will not only have the opportunity to visit the mine and the BISAL Laboratory but also to interview the MASE experts who will be attending the event.

Note to editors

MINAR contacts:

Prof. Charles Cockell: University of Edinburgh: [email protected]
Dr. Sean Paling: Boulby Underground Laboratory: sean.paling[at]

MASE contacts:

For communication and press conference issues please contact:
Ms. Johanne Martinez-Schmitt: jmartinez[at]

Prof. Charles Cockell – Scientific Coordinator, University of Edinburgh: [email protected]

Mr. Nicolas Walter – Administrative Coordinator, European Science Foundation: [email protected] About MASE (Mars Analogues for Space Exploration) Assessing the habitability of Mars and detecting life, if it was ever there, depends on knowledge of whether the combined environmental stresses experienced on Mars are compatible with life and whether a record of that life could ever be detected. However, our current ability to make these assessments is hampered by a lack of knowledge of how the combined effect of different environmental stresses influence the survival and growth of organisms. In particular, many combinations of stress, such as high radiation conditions combined with high salt and low temperature, relevant for early Mars, have not been investigated.

Furthermore, a lack of experimental studies on how anaerobic microorganisms respond to such stresses undermine our knowledge of Mars as a location for life since the planet is essentially anoxic. Even if life can be shown to be potentially supported on Mars, there exist no systematic studies of how organisms would be preserved. MASE will address these limitations in our knowledge and advance our ability to assess the habitability of Mars and detect life. MASE will also consider thoroughly the following cross cutting aspects i) optimised methodologies for sample management and experimental process and ii) optimised methodologies for life detection. MASE is a collaborative research project supported for four years (2014-2017) by the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) of the European Community for research, technological development and demonstration activities.

MASE Partners

* The University of Edinburgh: Prof. Charles Cockell – Scientific Coordinator
* The German Aerospace Center (DLR): Dr. Petra Rettberg
* Universidad Autonoma de Madrid : Prof. Ricardo Amils
* MATS ltd.: Dr. Viggo Thor Marteinsson
* Leiden Institute of Chemistry: Prof. Pascale Ehrenfreund
* Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial – Centro de Astrobiologia (INTA-CAB): Dr. Felipe Gomez Gomez
* Regensburg University : Dr. Christine Moissl-Eichinger
* Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS): Dr Frances Westall
* NERC British Antarctic Survey, Dr. Cynan Ellis-Evans, Dr. Kevin Newsham
* European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA): Dr. Frances Westall
* European Science Foundation: Mr. Nicolas Walter – Administrative Coordinator

About The European Science Foundation

The European Science Foundation coordinates collaboration in research, networking, and funding of international research programmes, as well as carrying out strategic and science policy activities at a European level. Its members are 66 national research funding and performing organisations, learned societies and academies in 29 countries.

About Boulby

Boulby mine is operated by Cleveland Potash Ltd (CPL). In addition to commercial mining activity Boulby is home to the UK’s Boulby Underground Laboratory which is funded and managed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), hosting a variety of science studies from astrophysics (the search for Dark Matter) to studies of geology, climate, the environment and beyond ( Connected to the Boulby Underground Laboratory, Boulby also hosts the Boulby International Subsurface Astrobiology Laboratory (BISAL), a permanent deep subsurface astrobiology/microbiology laboratory established by the UK Centre for Astrobiology in late 2011. The lab provides a means to collect and culture anaerobic organisms from subsurface halites and sulfates, study their physiology and prepare samples for transport to surface laboratories for detailed investigations.

About the UK Centre for Astrobiology

The UK Centre for Astrobiology is based at the University of Edinburgh. It is focused on the study of molecules and life in extremes ( The Centre established a deep subsurface astrobiology lab at Boulby in 2012 and is currently coordinating MINAR (Mine Analogue Research), a programme jointly organised with the STFC Boulby Underground Laboratory and MASE.

About the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

STFC is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change and ensuring global security.

The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-ba
sed astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including:

* in the UK; the Boulby Underground Laboratory, ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR. STFC is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.
* overseas; telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils in the UK. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Follow us on Twitter at @STFC_Matters

The Crown Estate

* The Crown Estate manages a highly diverse property business valued at more £8.6 billion.
* We pay our surplus revenue (profit) to the Treasury for the benefit of the nation every year: in 2012/13 this was £252.6 million. Over the past ten years The Crown Estate has paid over £2 billion to the Treasury.
* Our objectives, which are laid down by Parliament under the Crown Estate Act 1961, include enhancing the value of the estate and the revenue it produces.
* The responsibilities of The Crown Estate are to maintain and enhance the value of the estate and its income over the long term and to do this having regard to good management. In summary, The Crown Estate is a successful business organisation guided by our core values – commercialism, integrity and stewardship.
* The Crown Estate manages a diverse property portfolio which includes office, retail and industrial premises; housing; farmland; forestry and minerals; parkland; and around half the foreshore and almost all the seabed around the UK.

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