Mars Surface Simulation

Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Laura Rowe


Arts and Sciences


Chemistry, Astrobiology

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-29-2021


There are 20 amino acids used to construct proteins on Earth, however, there are many amino acids that are not used. It is theorized that in extreme conditions a different set of amino acids could be used to build proteins because of their stability. The study of amino acids and extremophiles in Mars-like conditions could provide clues into the evolution of life on other planets, as well as guiding rational strategies to search for and identify non-Earth life. A Mars surface simulator (MSS) is constructed to perform controlled laboratory experiments that replicate 3 of the environmental surface conditions on Mars: carbon dioxide atmosphere, low pressure, and low temperatures. The atmosphere of Mars is very thin, with a composition of roughly 95% carbon dioxide with trace amounts of nitrogen, argon, oxygen, and carbon monoxide, compared to the 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 0.9% argon of Earth. The surface pressure of Mars averages between 1-14 millibars, versus 1 bar on Earth, and the temperature on Mars averages -60℃ but can range from -125⁰C to 20⁰C. To generate these kinds of conditions in a laboratory, our MSS works by depressurizing the inside of a desiccator (a sealed container) that contains carbon dioxide gas. This system is then stored in a refrigerated microbial incubator to maintain a temperature of 0⁰C. Using this Mars surface simulator the stability of biological building blocks (such as amino acids and proteins, as well as whole extremophile organisms) can be tested for extended periods of time.

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