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Fake fossils could mislead the search for signs of life on Mars

Posted: Nov 20, 2021 00:15 GMT

Rock samples chemically carved to resemble fossil remains could fool explorers of the red planet, research suggests.

The rocks on Mars can contain numerous types of non-biological deposits that resemble the vestiges of life that that planet could have once harbored in the past, the University of Edinburgh (United Kingdom) warned this Thursday in a statement.

For the success of the current and future Martian missions, it is essential to know how to distinguish these false fossils from what could show that there was indeed life. Meanwhile, a detailed analysis of the geological evolution of the red planet has allowed researchers to identify “dozens of processes” that can produce structures that mimic the fossilized remains of some simple organism. Researchers consider it likely that “many more have yet to be discovered.”

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Among the false but realistic samples of life are microscopic images that resemble bacterial cells and the remains of some carbon-based molecules, associated with the building blocks of all known life.

“At some point, a rover is almost certain to find something on Mars that looks a lot like a fossil, and that’s why it is essential to be able to distinguish them safely from structures and substances produced by chemical reactions, “says astrobiologist Sean McMahon.

“For each type of fossil that exists, there is at least one non-biological process that creates very similar things,” says the scientist, who is the first author of the article published on November 17 in the Journal of the Geological Society, which addresses and cites multiple similarities. The confusion generated by pseudo-fossils makes it necessary “to improve our understanding of how they are formed,” he emphasizes.

Because the signs of life can be so roughly imitated by non-living processes, The origins of any fossil-looking specimens found on Mars are likely to be highly ambiguous, the research team believes.

“In the past, we have been fooled by processes that mimic life,” recalls co-author Julie Cosmidis, associate professor of geobiology at the University of Oxford. “On many occasions, objects that looked like fossil microbes were described in ancient rocks on Earth and even in meteorites on Mars, but upon closer examination they turned out to have non-biological origins“.

A few years ago, NASA workers found in the photos taken by the Martian rover Curiosity, a supposed ‘flower’ that seemed to be growing in the middle of the Martian dust. A little later a ‘fossilized lizard skeleton’ was photographed and the US space agency could not offer a reliable explanation for this unusual find.

A supposed ‘bone’ similar to a femur generated a lot of interest on the part of Internet users in 2014, but NASA was forced to clarify that they were not remains of “a mysterious Martian”, but rather the particular shape of the object that appeared in a The photograph was due “to erosion, either from wind or water.”

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About the author

Donna Miller

Donna is one of the oldest contributors of Gruntstuff and she has a unique perspective with regards to Science which makes her write news from the Science field. She aims to empower the readers with the delivery of apt factual analysis of various news pieces from Science. Donna has 3.5 years of experience in news-based content creation, and she is now an expert at it. She loves journalism, and that is the reason, she moved from a web content writer to a News writer, and she is loving it. She is a fun-loving woman who has very good connections with every team member. She makes the working environment cheerful which improves the team’s work productivity.

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