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On the Habitability of Desert Varnish: A Combined Study by Micro-Raman Spectroscopy, X-ray Diffraction, and Methylated Pyrolysis-Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry.

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posted on 2018-01-04, 14:18 authored by C. Malherbe, I. B. Hutchinson, R. Ingley, A. Boom, A. S. Carr, H. Edwards, B. Vertruyen, B. Gilbert, G. Eppe
In 2020, the ESA ExoMars and NASA Mars 2020 missions will be launched to Mars to search for evidence of past and present life. In preparation for these missions, terrestrial analog samples of rock formations on Mars are studied in detail in order to optimize the scientific information that the analytical instrumentation will return. Desert varnishes are thin mineral coatings found on rocks in arid and semi-arid environments on Earth that are recognized as analog samples. During the formation of desert varnishes (which takes many hundreds of years), organic matter is incorporated, and microorganisms may also play an active role in the formation process. During this study, four complementary analytical techniques proposed for Mars missions (X-ray diffraction [XRD], Raman spectroscopy, elemental analysis, and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry [Py-GC-MS]) were used to interrogate samples of desert varnish and describe their capacity to sustain life under extreme scenarios. For the first time, both the geochemistry and the organic compounds associated with desert varnish are described with the use of identical sets of samples. XRD and Raman spectroscopy measurements were used to nondestructively interrogate the mineralogy of the samples. In addition, the use of Raman spectroscopy instruments enabled the detection of β-carotene, a highly Raman-active biomarker. The content and the nature of the organic material in the samples were further investigated with elemental analysis and methylated Py-GC-MS, and a bacterial origin was determined to be likely. In the context of planetary exploration, we describe the habitable nature of desert varnish based on the biogeochemical composition of the samples. Possible interference of the geological substrate on the detectability of pyrolysis products is also suggested.


C.M., I.B.H., R.I., and H.G.M.E acknowledge support from the UK Space Agency in the UK, and C.M. acknowledges the support of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Liège. A.S.C. and A.B. acknowledge support from the Department of Geology at the University of Leicester.



Astrobiology, 2017, 17 (11), pp. 1123-1137

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING/School of Geography, Geology and the Environment/Physical Geography


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Mary Ann Liebert for Astrobiology Society





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