Friday, June 24, 2011

MARS Simulation on Tenerife mountain top

One of the most exciting parts of my astrobiology research is working out how to search for evidence of past Martian life - signs of ancient biology that may have fallen extinct hundreds of millions of years ago.

One promising technique for finding these "biosignatures" - which could be pockets of organic molecules or even microbial life - is to entice them to glow in the dark using an ultraviolet laser mounted on a robotic probe. A camera on the probe would then detect the glow.

If you've ever had a gin and tonic in a nightclub you are probably already familiar with this effect. You'll have noticed how the ultraviolet lights in the club (we see them as black) cause the G&T to emit an eerie blue glow. This is caused by quinine, an organic molecule in the tonic water, fluorescing. It is this bitter-tasting compound that gives tonic water its anti-malarial properties so it's funny to think how far we've come since Victorian colonists in East Africa supped medicinal G&T sun-downers!

I have been testing this technique in the lab but it is now time to try the equipment in a more realistic scenario. So next week I'm flying out to Tenerife in the Canary Islands to carry out fieldwork in the volcanic caldera that sits like a giant pimple on the face of this tiny island. The barren rocky terrain and volcanic geology around Tenerife are a good approximation to the Martian landscape, and, in fact, prototypes for Mars rovers are put through their paces here.

I am part of a team of scientists, lead by Derek Pullan at Leicester University, who will be field-testing different instruments and camera systems. The system I'll be testing involves a sensitive digital camera and an ultraviolet light source. Because we'll be operating by day I'll have to shield everything from the bright sunlight beneath a thick photographic blanket. My rucksack will also be laden with other snazzy kit like a laser range-finder and GPS-equipped camera to record the environment around my test sites.

There are still a few things to sort out, but I'm pretty much good to go now. Holiday snaps to follow!

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