A unique mass spectrometry suite at an English university is at the centre of a bid by scientists to find evidence of life on Mars, as Jim Drury reports.
It's a question that fascinates us....is there life on Mars? These Newcastle University scientists hope to provide an answer, using their engineering and analysis laboratory, arguably the most advanced of its type in Europe. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR PETER CUMPSON, MECHANICAL AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING, OF NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "The instrument behind me is really an extremely good microscope operating with helium ions instead of light, which enables you to focus those helium ions so well that you can get basically nanometre resolution, so we're almost on the point of seeing individual atoms that way...but this instrument over here gives a lot more. This is a secondary ion mass spectrometer." SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR PETER CUMPSON, MECHANICAL AND SYSTEMS ENGINEERING, OF NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "It works by firing very high energetic ions at the sample surface..those energetic ions, when they hit the sample, throw up a lot of secondary ions or secondary atoms, and we then analyse that in this long time of flight analyser chamber." Researchers have already analysed these 200 million year old microscopic 'tunnels' in basalt rocks, and found evidence of life. Sub-oceanic basalt has similar properties to rock found on Mars. The next step is to analyse Martian rock. SOUNDBITE (English) DR GRAHAM PURVIS, GEOSCIENTIST, OF NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "What we intend to do is have a look at some of the rocks that may be available from NASA, which date back to a time when Mars was much warmer and wetter, and have a look at some of the structures and chemical signatures that we see in those rocks." Until now such analysis has been hard because Martian meteorites picked up biological molecules on their way through earth's atmosphere. But Newcastle's new facility makes scientists confident of success. SOUNDBITE (English) DR GRAHAM PURVIS, GEOSCIENTIST, OF NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "If we can show that life arose independently on two neighbouring planets then we can demonstrate that life is probably very common throughout the galaxy, possibly the universe, and if that's true why aren't we seeing any aliens here right now?" The team's basalt research was published in the Journal of Vacuum Science and Technology.