Several robotic exploration missions will travel to Mars during this decade to investigate habitability and the possible presence of life. Field research at Mars analogue sites such as desert environments can provide important constraints for instrument calibration, landing site strategies and expected life detection targets. We have characterized the mineralogy, organic chemistry and microbiology of ten selected sample sites from the Utah desert in close vicinity to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) during the EuroGeoMars 2009 campaign (organized by International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG), NASA Ames and ESA ESTEC). Compared with extremely arid deserts (such as the Atacama), organic and biological materials can be identified in a larger number of samples and subsequently be used to perform correlation studies. Among the important findings of this field research campaign are the diversity in the mineralogical composition of soil samples even when collected in close proximity, the low abundances of detectable polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and amino acids and the presence of biota of all three domains of life with significant heterogeneity. An extraordinary variety of putative extremophiles, mainly Bacteria and also Archaea and Eukarya was observed. The dominant factor in measurable bacterial abundance seems to be soil porosity and lower small (clay-sized) particle content. However, correlations between many measured parameters are difficult to establish. Field research conducted during the EuroGeoMars 2009 campaign shows that the geological history and depositional environment of the region, as well as the mineralogy influence the ability to detect compounds such as amino acids and DNA. Clays are known to strongly absorb and bind organic molecules often preventing extraction by even sophisticated laboratory methods. Our results indicate the need for further development and optimization of extraction procedures that release biological compounds from host matrices to enable the effective detection of biomarkers during future sampling campaigns on Earth and Mars. © 2011 Cambridge University Press.
Astrobiology field research in Moon/Mars analogue environments