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Studying Earth's harshest landscapes could help us discover life on Mars

Louisa Preston in Iceland
Land of ice and fire: Louisa Preston studies Mars-like landscapes in Iceland Credit: Fred MacGregor

Scientist Louisa Preston hunts in Earth’s harshest places for organisms that could live on other planets.

I’m an astrobiologist,which means asking the question no one in history has yet been able to answer: is there life elsewhere in the universe? Our premise is that, if life can be found in the most environmentally extreme spots of our planet, then surely it could tolerate similar places on other planets and moons in the solar system?

My work takes me to frozen deserts, ancient rivers, hot springs, geysers and volcanoes, all of which are analogues for environments that exist or once existed on Mars. For instance, the Dry Valleys of Antarctica are home to the most Mars-like landscape on Earth – with high UV radiation, low humidity and little to no rainfall; the surface is so extreme that very little life can survive on it. Beneath the surface however, in moist crevices within rocks, organisms can be found thriving.

In Spain, there is a reddish-brown river with the acidity of lemon juice, whose waters are home to acid-loving bacteria. Its rocks record evidence of bacteria that lived more than two million years ago. Astrobiology asks two questions. Could the ancient river channels on Mars also have bacteria trapped inside their rocks? And could life be found under the surface of this frozen world, as it is in Antarctica?

I get to go out into the world and have a taste of what it would feel like to walk on another planetary body

Being an astrobiologist is an amazing job. I get to go out into the world and have a taste of what it would feel like to walk on another planetary body. It’s incredibly liberating. Despite the remoteness and isolation of these alien landscapes, there is a sense of familiarity and peace. It gets you back to the bare essentials of living and provides a much-needed break from the rush of the everyday world.

It takes a certain kind of person to do this job, but it isn’t a matter of intelligence or any other stigma associated with being a scientist, you just have to be curious and driven to ask questions and seek the answers. You need perseverance, as you can’t google the answer you’re looking for.

It can be dangerous – these places are extreme and we’re very squishy, vulnerable life forms who don’t survive in these places nearly as well as the micro-organisms I study do. The weather always controls the situation so we take protection very seriously. I have experienced total white-outs, had my field site washed away in front of my eyes by a flash flood and had the soles of my boots melt as I walked across a lava field.

You can never 100 per cent know what to expect, so the key is layers and lots of them. Today I’m wearing waterproof insulated walking trousers from Craghoppers, which are incredible for keeping you warm and dry, and my Craghoppers Gore-Tex waterproof jacket hasn’t failed me yet.

FILM: Why is Louisa Preston probing the planet's harshest environments? The answer is out of this world

Dr Louisa Preston on being an astrobiologist
02:33

Why am I doing all this? Well, if we as humans want to visit Mars in person one day then we need to be prepared for the environment, know what we are going to do and where we are going to do it. Sending humans to Mars will allow us to unravel the history and secrets of the Red Planet. We are so much more efficient and faster than a robot and we can make decisions and interpretations on the spot that can guide our next steps.

We also will want to live there one day, either temporarily in a research base like we do in Antarctica or permanently as a new home. For that, we need to know how to use Mars’s harsh environment to sustain life. We’ll need to use its natural resources, just like in the film The Martian – yes, potatoes could grow on Mars. The first Martians won’t just be humans but plants as well; we could not live there without them.

We need to know how to use Mars’s harsh environment to sustain life

Would I go to Mars? Only if I could come back, and current technology hasn’t quite figured out the return part of the journey yet. Until then, I can experience the next best thing in places like Iceland. I have been here so many times now it feels like home roving among the lava flows and acidic springs. I feel confident here and know how to protect myself and those who are with me.

I’m so much braver now than I was when I was younger. I remember the first field trip I took to Scotland. When I saw the mountains of Glen Coe, I felt fear and intimidation instead of the awe I experience today: they were so huge and I was so small. Today that fear has (mostly) gone, replaced with an excitement to explore and a drive to use the Earth to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions.

Louisa is the author of Goldilocks & The Water Bears (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
Follow her on Twitter at @LouisaJPreston

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