Agilent and the Search for Life on Mars

This week, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced evidence of liquid water currently flowing on the surface of Mars.  Earlier, NASA had found evidence that an ocean of water may once have covered a quarter of the planet.  These discoveries add to the exciting possibility that life exists – or once existed – on Mars.

Agilent technologies and solutions have long been a part of the search for life on Mars.  NASA’s Curiosity rover is equipped with two Agilent J&W UltiMetal GC columns to sample soil and air in the search for evidence of life.  An Agilent GC is being used to evaluate and analyze results obtained by Curiosity.   Agilent (now Keysight) software tools also tested the communications equipment on the previous Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

Here on Earth, scientists are using Agilent technologies to test biological materials under conditions similar to the Martian environment.  Researchers believe that three components are necessary for life to develop on any planet: liquid water, organic molecules and some kind of energy source(s).

Phyllosilicate minerals detected on the surface of Mars are a possible target in the search for organic molecules.  French and Swiss scientists exposed organic phyllosilicate samples to a simulated Martian environment of ultraviolet light, temperature and pressure.  The results suggest that phyllosilicates could preserve at least some organic molecules under Martian surface UV irradiation.  UV absorption of the samples was performed using an Agilent Cary 60 UV-vis spectrometer.

The Rhynie Chert in Scotland contains well-preserved fossils of some of Earth’s earliest plants and animals, which developed in extreme prehistoric hot spring environments.  British scientists studied silicified microfossils to see if evidence of life could be detected in similar samples from Mars.  Compound detection of hydrocarbons was performed using an Agilent GC/MSD.

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