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ScienceWise - May/Jun 2009

Are We Alone in the Universe?

Article Illustration
Eriita Jones, PhD student at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, researches the possibilities of water and life on Mars.
Article Illustration
According to Eritta Jones, surface features on Mars - such as this gully - are key to finding water on Mars.

Using the Earth to Help Find Water and Life on Mars

Are we alone in the Universe?  That is a question that has been asked again and again, ever since ancient astronomers first looked up into the night sky and realised that there were other planets and worlds out there.

It is also a question that Eriita Jones, of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, asks herself daily.  This past year, Eriita completed her PhB with an honours project on water and the potential for life on Mars.  She is now continuing her innovative research in her PhD under Charles Lineweaver.

But Eriita doesn’t spend her days looking at data from Mars, hoping to see some sign of aliens or what she amiably calls ‘Martian rabbits’ – her technique is much more realistic. She looks for micro-organisms, and uses life here on Earth to direct her search.

“We’re studying the Earth and looking for the environments that life inhabits, and what kind of conditions life likes.  You can find life on Earth living at extreme temperatures and pressures, deep under the ground where it’s very cold and where there is no sunlight.  Those are the types of environments that we might be able to find on other planets… and if we find those conditions on other planets then that’s our best guess as to where we should start looking (for life).”

When asked what makes her research unique, Eriita explained that a lot of researchers “focus on Mars itself, and forget that we have all the examples that we’re trying to understand right here on Earth”.  In fact, there are places in Australia where people are doing what Eriita calls “Mars analogue research”.  Eriita is particularly interested in the analogue research being done in Australian deserts.  She looks at the surface of the Earth to find features that tell her that there is water under the surface.  Learning more about these surface features on Earth, specifically gullies, helps her locate similar features on Mars and with any luck, that will lead to the ability to find water below the Martian surface as well.

Why water?  Well, Eriita explained that “the really special ingredient for life seems to be liquid water… the stuff that we’re made out of – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen – are the main ingredients of all life and they are everywhere.  But so far as we know the only large amounts of water are on Earth, and we’re trying to find large amounts of it in other places too”.  If she can find water on Mars, it is a good sign there could be life there too, she said.

Amidst all the exciting ideas of water and life on Mars, Eriita was quick to admit that the daily life of a researcher in this area holds much less excitement and drama.  She said most of her day is spent on her computer, going through data from the Mars global surveyor mission, making codes to manipulate data, making plots to display the data and, as she put it, “constantly reading because everyone else in the world is constantly publishing!”  Despite the hard work, Eriita displays a zeal for her research that is unmistakable, and surely an asset in her personal quest… finding that elusive “martian rabbit”.

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