A group of scientists has developed a “revolutionary” new method to determine if there is life on Mars. The team reports that their test, which uses an artificial intelligence system, has an accuracy close to 90% to evaluate past and present life samples.
This method has “the potential to revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life and deepen our understanding of both the origin and chemistry of the earliest life on Earth,” explained Robert Hazen, of the Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington and co-leader of the study. They have called him “holy grail of astrobiology.”
The new “test” not only identifies a molecule or specific groups of compounds in a sample. The researchers pointed out that, thanks to artificial intelligence, they can differentiate between samples of biotic nature – plants, animals and bacteria – and of abiotic origin – water, soil and atmosphere.
This analysis is achieved through the identification of subtle differences within the molecular patterns of a sample. “This paves the way for the use of smart sensors on robotic spacecraft, landers and rovers to search for signs of life before samples return to Earth,” Hazen added.
Artificial intelligence could now search for life on Mars
The new test could reveal the history of ancient and mysterious rocks on Earth. But also could evaluate samples already collected by the Curiosity rover, that NASA landed on Mars 11 years ago. The team explains that these analyzes could be carried out using an analytical instrument called SAM (Sample Analysis on Mars).
Curiosity, for example, found clues that Mars probably had a cyclical climate similar to that on Earth. It has also detected carbon signatures. These are signs that suggest that there could be life on Mars.
“We will have to modify our method to match SAM protocols, but we may already have data available to determine if there are molecules on Mars from an organic Martian biosphere,” said Jim Cleaves, the lead author of the research, published this week. week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The search for extraterrestrial life remains one of the most tantalizing endeavors of modern science,” Cleaves acknowledges.
How was the test created to search for life?
Artificial intelligence capable of searching for life on Mars was trained with a large amount of multidimensional data. They were extracted from Molecular analyzes of 134 known abiotic or biotic carbon-rich samples.
They used remains of living beings, such as shells, teeth, bones, insects, leaves and human hair. They also used remains of ancient life, altered by geological processing: coal, oil, amber and carbon-rich fossils. In addition, they added samples with abiotic origins, such as pure laboratory chemicals, and pieces of carbon-rich meteorites.
The origins of many ancient carbon-bearing samples had been difficult to determine. Collections of organic molecules, whether biotic or abiotic, tend to degrade over time. However, its new artificial intelligence detected signs of biology conserved, in some cases, for hundreds of millions of years.
“These results mean that it is possible that we could find a form of life from another planet, from another biosphere, even if it is very different from the life we know on Earth,” says Hazen. “And, if we find signs of life in other places, we will be able to know if life on Earth and other planets has a common or different origin.”
They are not the only team that has discovered the potential of artificial intelligence to search for life on Mars. Researchers at the NASA Astrobiology Institute combined ecological statistics with machine learning techniques in a model. To this another system gives it 88% accuracy. This artificial intelligence was tested in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and has the ability to map “biosignatures”: any characteristic that provides evidence of past or present life.