Researchers from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration are in Australia carrying out research that will help future missions to Mars. The NASA delegation is looking for the earliest signs of life on Earth that will eventually be compared to rocks brought back from Mars.
NASA officials have said that parts of the Pilbara region in Western Australia are like “stepping back in time.” Some areas date to 3.5 billion years old.
In the red Outback dust, they have found some of the earliest evidence of life on Earth — fossils of ancient microorganisms encased in rocks.
The NASA team plans to compare these terrestrial samples with those brought back from Mars to see if they have any similar characteristics. NASA says it could be well over a decade before the Martian rocks are brought to Earth.
Eric Ianson, the director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Monday that Australia’s red dust could yield clues about past life on the Red Planet.
“We are looking at what are called stromatolites, which are actually some of the earliest evidence of life that existed on Earth and there are fossils that are actually captured within the rock. And how this relates to Mars is that we are currently working on bringing samples back from Mars — rock samples back from Mars — and if we see similar patterns and indications, it could indicate that life actually existed in the past on Mars.”
NASA has also indicated that humans could be sent on a mission to Mars by the mid- to late 2030s, although no definite timetable has been set.
Australia has worked with the United States in space for decades, including helping to broadcast the Apollo 11 Moon landing to the world in 1969.
The Tidbinbilla facility near Canberra is the only NASA tracking station still operational in Australia.
Australian engineers and scientists will also have key roles in the Artemis II mission. They are developing a small autonomous rover to be sent to the Moon and also will establish contact with astronauts on the first crewed voyage to the lunar surface since 1972. That mission could take place as early as 2025 or 2026.