Welcome to Terrestrial Analogs of Planetary Deposits Project
A fundamental goal of planetary exploration is to identify life on other planets by recognizing indicators or biomarkers of primitive life. Such biomarkers exist in early lifeforming environments on Earth, and can provide critical information in the search for life on other planets. However, further work is needed to correctly recognize the spectral signatures of these environments on Earth, and understand how they are preserved in the geologic record. By characterizing these environments on Earth, with similar tools to those available for planetary exploration, we can develop appropriate strategies to explore for life on other planets. We can also identify any enhancements to current planetary exploration tools that would improve future searches for life.
We have identified four Earth analogs of planetary environments: 1) ancient hydrothermal environments, 2) banded iron formations, 3) red beds, and 4) acid evaporite environments. Each environment represents a range of conditions and processes proposed for regions on Mars at various periods in its history. Each environment will be characterized with a combination of high spatial and spectral resolution visible through thermal infrared airborne remotely sensed data, in situ measurements and laboratory analyses of field samples. The results from our characterization will be used to understand each environment and identify key indicator minerals and structures linked to microbial life. We will undertake geochemical modeling to better understand the chemistry of these environments and any differences that would apply in other planetary settings such as on Mars. We will learn how to discern and explore each analog environment at remote sensing scales and then analyze equivalent planetary data, in particular from Mars, to explore for life.
The results from our research will directly address the solicitation by using Earth analogs to study processes or systems that operate elsewhere in the solar system. Our work is highly relevant to the NASA strategic objective: Conduct robotic exploration of Mars to search for evidence of life, and understand the history of the Solar System. The work will provide NASA with proven approaches and methodologies to search for evidence of life on Mars and other planets, as well as insight into how these analog environments developed and evolved on Earth. The results of our research also will aid in the assessment of the scientific potential of candidate landing sites for the future Mars Science Lander.