Science Results from a Mars Drilling Simulation (Rio Tinto, Spain) and Ground Truth for Remote Science Observations

Status Report From: Astrobiology
Posted: Friday, January 9, 2009

Science results from a field-simulated lander payload and post-mission laboratory investigations provided "ground truth" to interpret remote science observations made as part of the 2005 Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) drilling mission simulation. The experiment was successful in detecting evidence for life, habitability, and preservation potential of organics in a relevant astrobiological analogue of Mars.

Science results. Borehole 7 was drilled near the Rio Tinto headwaters at Pena de Hierro (Spain) in the upper oxidized remnant of an acid rock drainage system. Analysis of 29 cores (215 cm of core was recovered from 606 cm penetrated depth) revealed a matrix of goethite- (42-94%) and hematite-rich (47-87%) rocks with pockets of phyllosilicates (47-74%) and fine- to coarse-grained loose material. Post-mission X-ray diffraction (XRD) analysis confirmed the range of hematite:goethite mixtures that were visually recognizable (1:1, 1:2, and 1:3 mixtures displayed a yellowish-red color whereas 3:1 mixtures displayed a dark reddish-brown color). Organic carbon was poorly preserved in hematite/goethite-rich materials (Corg <0.05 wt %) beneath the biologically active organic-rich soil horizon (Corg 3-11 wt %) in contrast to the phyllosilicate-rich zones (Corg 0.23 wt %). Ground truth vs. remote science analysis. Laboratory-based analytical results were compared to the analyses obtained by a Remote Science Team (RST) using a blind protocol. Ferric iron phases, lithostratigraphy, and inferred geologic history were correctly identified by the RST with the exception of phyllosilicate-rich materials that were misinterpreted as weathered igneous rock. Adenosine 5'-triphosphate (ATP) luminometry, a tool available to the RST, revealed ATP amounts above background noise, i.e., 278-876 Relative Luminosity Units (RLUs) in only 6 cores, whereas organic carbon was detected in all cores. Our manned vs. remote observations based on automated acquisitions during the project provide insights for the preparation of future astrobiology-driven Mars missions. Astrobiology 8, 967-985.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 967-985.

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