The search for life on Mars: An early Earth perspective


The search for life on Mars: An early Earth perspective

Professor Martin Van Kranendonk

November 13th, 6:45 pm for 7:00 pm start (8:30 pm finish)

Messel Theatre , Sydney Nanoscience Hub (SNH)

Physics Road, The University of Sydney




This event is part of the 17th

Australian Space Research Conference


The search for life on Mars: An early Earth perspective

Professor Martin Van Kranendonk is Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology the Head of the
School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of NSW, Deputy Director of the Big
Questions Institute.


Our knowledge of life in the Universe is based on an example of one: the Earth. Currently, life is everywhere, from the deepest
oceans to the highest mountains, from sun drenched to pitch black, from water to ice, and uses a wide variety of metabolisms and a
broad swath of the chemical elements (and molecules) available on our planet. The complexity and size of organisms on Earth
today is the result of billions of years of chemical interactions and water-based development of evolutionary complexity.

But on early Earth, life was simpler, occupied fewer niches, and perhaps utilised fewer elements. And in order to get life in the first
place, specific conditions were required that - although not yet precisely known – have important implications in the search for life
on Mars, whose active geological history and wet surface environments were restricted to its early history.

If life on Earth got started in deep sea hydrothermal vents, then Mars might not appear that attractive for life, as its early history
apparently lacked a global ocean and plate tectonics to generate the deep sea vents. Alternatively, if life originated in hot springs,
on land, then Mars is a more exciting target, as we know that its early history included both volcanism and liquid water.

In this talk, I review the pros and cons of the two currently promoted models for the origin of life and show why a life on land
model provides both the required conditions and elemental concentrations required for prebiotic chemistry, as well as orders of
magnitude greater complexity that their deep sea counterparts. And from this, I will explore how this can be used to guide the
search for life on Mars and critically examine the current top three final sites for NASA’s Mars2020 mission.


The David Cooper lecture

This annual lecture commemorates the life and work of Dave Cooper, an Australian space advocate who made a
significant contribution to promoting Mars exploration in his home country.

Born in Adelaide, David Cooper worked for many years as a commercial pilot in remote parts of Western
Australia and the Northern Territory. He was a member of the Planetary Society since the 1980s and also of the
National Space Society and regularly attended space conferences, including one in the United States in 1990.

In 1998 Dave co-founded the Mars Society Australia (MSA, dedicated to promoting Mars exploration and serves
as an Australian network for Mars researchers and enthusiasts. He was vice-president until February 2005 and
president until his death in 2012.


New South Wales