Salt mine in Yorkshire could help to shed light on Martian life

A PhD student is helping to shed light on life on Mars by exploring similar environments on Earth - including an underground salt mine in North Yorkshire.

Peter Edwards, from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is part of a team of researchers at Leicester currently investigating how to optimise the performance of the Raman Laser Spectrometer by studying various types of samples recovered from extreme environments on Earth. 

Peter’s research involves preparing for the operation of the instrument by looking at the information obtained from previous Mars rovers (such as Curiosity) and determining the best way to operate the detector system that is being developed for the spectrometer.

As part of this research, Peter has travelled to North Yorkshire to explore the Boulby salt mine, which stretches a kilometre down and out under the North Sea.

Peter explained: “Parts of Mars are quite similar to the salty environment deep underground at Boulby. In these areas we see polygons marked out in the ground similar in some ways to the Giants Causeway on Mars. Underground we can see these same polygons on the ceiling and walls of tunnels.

“Salty environments are typically hostile to life but certain types of micro-organisms can adapt to these hostile conditions, we call these halophiles. By investigating the difference between the dark outer edges of these polygons compared with the lighter inside we can work out where to direct rovers on Mars when searching for life in these similar conditions.

“Further work with the data from the mine and samples recovered from the mine will allow us to investigate them in much greater detail helping us to plan the targets for future missions to Mars.”

In 2020, the ExoMars rover will be launched on an approximately 7 month journey to Mars. The rover will carry a suite of complex, analytical instruments that will be used to investigate the composition and structure of material recovered from the near sub-surface.

The University of Leicester - working with the UK Space Agency, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and e2v - is responsible for the development of a camera system for one of the analytical instruments - a device called the Raman Laser Spectrometer, which will be used to investigate the geology of the planet and to search for signs of extinct or extant life.

Research at the University of Leicester not only informs its teaching, it is inseparably intertwined with it. This relationship sees researchers bring their innovation into the classroom and its students inspired to research and is at the heart of Leicester’s ambition to pioneer a distinctive elite of universities.