Tech & Science

Here’s how Nunavut could help us understand Mars

Axel Haiberg Island, Nunavut –

A team of researchers visited a remote island in the Arctic in hopes of better understanding the potential for life on Mars.

Astrobiologist Hayley Sapers, Adjunct Professor of Engineering at York University’s Rasonde School of Engineering, leads a team at the McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) on Axel Heiberg Island. This uninhabited island is located in the Kikiktaaluk region of Nunavut and has a situation similar to that of the Red Planet.

They plan to study ultrasaline cold springs that release methane at gypsum hills, about a 45-minute walk from the research station, under the 24-hour midnight sun. They also plan to take measurements of methane from the atmosphere and perform simulated Mars rover missions.

“Methane is a very important atmospheric gas on Earth because it contributes significantly to global warming,” said Sapers, a visiting scientist at the California Institute of Technology. “It’s also a very interesting gas on Mars, and we don’t understand exactly where it’s coming from and where it’s going.”

On Earth, most methane is biogenic, meaning it’s produced by living things, Sapers said. This gas can also be produced by geological processes.

Its presence on Mars could be evidence of past or present life, or it could indicate areas on Earth that could be inhabited in the future.

Scientists first detected traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere in 2003 and have been puzzled by it.

Sapers said instruments on board the Curia City rover would need to sample the Martian atmosphere over several hours to concentrate the methane to a point where it can be analyzed. She said there aren’t many measurements of methane from the surface of Mars.

“We need a new type of instrument that can measure methane very fast and with high sensitivity and doesn’t require a lot of resources,” she said.

On the island of Axel Heiberg, the research team will test a new device developed with Quebec-based technology and engineering company ABB Inc. for just that purpose.

Sapers also said McGill University scientists will complete a detailed sampling of microorganisms previously detected in the island’s high-salinity cold spring sediments. She said she wanted to see if these microbes oxidized methane, similar to the microbes she studied in deep-sea methane seeps.

“Understanding more about these microbes that live in the Arctic may help us understand their potential to prevent massive methane emissions beneath the Arctic,” she said. “It will be very important, especially in the context of climate change and global warming.”

Sapers said uninhabited polar islands would be an ideal location to conduct this research. That’s because it’s the only place on Earth where high-salinity cold springs, methane seeps, exist within permafrost—similar to subsurface conditions on Mars.

He said the planet and island have cold, dry conditions and polygonal terrain—a type of patterned ground formed by freezing and thawing in permafrost regions on Earth.

“It’s great to be here,” she said. “It’s a very exciting place to do research.”


This article was produced with funding from the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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