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  • Bijan Harandi

The Search for Life on Mars, Icy Worlds, and Beyond

With the launch of the NASA Mars Perseverance Rover, the search for life on other worlds has never been position so far at the frontier of national scientific interest. This field of life on other worlds, Astrobiology (the intersection between Astronomy and Biology), is one not only being innovated in at agencies such as NASA, but also the Chemistry Department at Tufts University. Specifically, Postdoctoral Scholar and Astrobiologist Dr. Neveda Naz works to uncover the mysterious of many worlds in our solar system as part of the Kounaves Lab, stationed in the Pearson building.


Neveda Naz, originally from the United Kingdom, came to the United States in 2017 in effort to join the American astrobiology community and conduct high-level research, which according to Dr. Naz, was far harder to accomplish in the United Kingdom. With a PhD in Medical Microbiology and Bacteriology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr. Naz sought to change her career path from one focused in the Health Sciences to one in the Cosmos. According to Dr. Naz, “with just learning new techniques, reading up, and getting

aware of what’s happening in that particular sector [astrobiology], I was able to join the astrobiology community in the US”. Speaking on why astrobiology is so intriguing, Dr. Naz states that “You look at space and you probably think, there’s no life out there, there’s nothing for biologists to look into. But there actually is, and I find that we learn so much for life on earth, that we are able to take that knowledge and extrapolate into what life would look like on other worlds”. Particularly, Dr. Naz researches the possibility of life on three worlds: Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.


Regarding Mars, Dr. Naz uses her experience in Microbiology to uncover the possibilities of life on the Red Planet. Specifically, Dr. Naz utilizes Extremophiles, which are defined as microorganisms that thrive in extreme conditions such as extreme temperatures, salt concentrations, UV Radiation, and lack of H2O among other parameters. Dr. uses two extremophiles, Planococcus Halocryophilus and Gloecapsa. According to Dr. Naz, “We’re not saying that these bacteria will grow on Mars and that you’ll find them under rocks, but that if it’s possible for them to grow in harsh environments similar to Mars, then perhaps similar extremophile-like organisms are currently there or existed in the distant past”. Planococcus Halocryophilus for starters serves as a good candidate given its high tolerance for salt and extreme heat in addition to thriving off high CO2 concentrations, which Mars’ atmosphere is heavy in compared to Earth’s. Furthermore, the specific strand of Gloecapsa used in the lab was isolated from a rock in the Atacama Desert, a desert almost completely devoid of water, thus also making it a good candidate for the extreme conditions of Mars. Dr. Naz is currently growing these bacteria in Martian regolith soil simulants. Testing growth of these extremophiles in these Martian chemical conditions will help better understand the possibility of life on the Red Planet. But in addition to Mars, Dr. Naz is also working on new technologies for future missions to Enceladus and Europa.


In 2008, the Mars Phoenix Lander successfully landed on Mars, a main of which was to identify the chemical composition of the Martian surface. This was completed through Ion-Selective Electrodes (ISEs), of which were developed by the Kounaves Lab at Tufts University. Now that Icy Moons such as Europa and Enceladus are greater priorities for NASA than they were in the past, this same sensor technology is being augmented by Dr. Naz distant moons as opposed to Mars. Europa and Enceladus are thought to be prime possibilities for


extraterrestrial life given their plumes and large volumes of water. Dr. Naz states that “when we look for life, we first look for the presence of liquid water”. Given the presence of plumes on these moons, scientists are certain that beneath the surface, heat is present that is created these plumes that shoot out the ocean water. This source of water and heat excites astrobiologists greatly, especially

given that past missions such as Cassini have verified the chemical composition of the ejected plume matter to be similar to Earth’s in many aspects. As mentioned prior, Dr. Naz is currently working on augmenting the same chemical sensors used on Mars for potential future missions to Europa and Enceladus. Dr. Naz states that “the sensors are designed to measure the ionic species present, redox pairs, energy sources, and pH. If we can measure those parameters, that gives us a better idea of if life can survive. These instruments can tell you the near-to-exact composition of these ocean worlds”. Dr. Naz is hopeful that these sensors will be used on the potential Europa Lander and Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability (ELSAH) missions, both of which are both in the works but not fully approved by NASA yet.


Overall, Dr. Naz’s research in the Chemistry Department showcases that there is still much to be done overall in the realm of space exploration and that we have barely scratched the surface of many worlds in our own solar system, one of which, Dr. Naz and other Astrobiologists hope, may possess or have possessed life, whether it be similar to Earth’s or something completely different. Seeing the field as becoming more popular given “NASA’s new mission directives to look for life on other words and see if life on Earth could survive space environments”, Dr. Naz hopes more biologists will become aware and interested in the niche field of astrobiology, especially young students who serve as the next generation of scientists.

 
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