Detecting Life on Mars Using Sulfate Analysis

One of the most intriguing challenges in space exploration is detecting signs of life on Mars. The red planet is particularly interesting to astrobiologists due to its potential for harboring life, with numerous missions aimed at searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.

Image Credit: Jurik Peter/

Image Credit: Jurik Peter/

The chemical analysis of Mars' surface can give insights into biosignatures related to past or present life. Sulfate analysis plays an important role in studying Martian minerals from which information about the planet's habitability can be deduced.

Introduction to Sulfate Analysis in Astrobiology

Sulfate analysis is considered a crucial tool in astrobiology, and it is frequently used to study sulfate minerals in extraterrestrial environments. Sulfur is an essential element for life, and the sulfur cycle has important implications in identifying biosignatures and signs of life on Mars.

In particular, sulfate analysis can provide valuable information about the past habitability of Mars. Sulfate-containing minerals have already been discovered, indicating that the planet once could support life.

Sulfate on Mars: Clues to Ancient Environments

The presence of sulfate minerals on the planet's surface is a significant discovery. It indicates possible past habitable conditions since sulfate-bearing minerals are thought to have formed in environments that once hosted lakes and rivers.

The Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM), onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, detected spectral signatures of hematite, phyllosilicates, and sulfates from sediments in the lower slopes of Mt. Sharp, which are indicative paleoclimatic changes and have the potential for preserving evidence of ancient habitability.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover found ancient mud cracks in the Gale crater. Their hexagonal patterns could have originated during long cycles of wet and dry conditions. In particular, the presence of abundant sulfates (mainly Ca-sulfate and Mg-sulfate) in some areas whilst being less abundant in others suggests that sulfate minerals precipitated owing to evaporation in muds.

The variability in shape and size of the sulfate-rich areas is consistent with repeated drying cycles (perhaps seasonally). Such cycles are thought to support conditions required to promote the reactions necessary to convert nucleotides to RNA or DNA or to form proteins from amino acids, the same conditions in which life could form.

Analytical Techniques in Sulfate Analysis

Techniques very common in analytical chemistry can be used to identify and quantify sulfate minerals in extraterrestrial samples. Sulfate analysis is performed with ion chromatography and mass spectrometry. Infrared spectroscopy is also suitable and has found applications in remote and in-situ analysis of the Martian surface.

The Curiosity rover is equipped with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite, which includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer for organic compound exploration. It is thanks to GC-MS analysis that it was possible to identify the presence of organic matter (including organic sulfates) in 3-billion-year-old mudstone samples from the Gale crater.

Signs of Life: Microbial Sulfate Reduction

The sulfur cycle consists of the transformation of reduced sulfur to its oxidized forms and vice versa. Some microorganisms on Earth use these transformations to gain chemical energy. Microbial sulfate reduction is a metabolic process in some bacteria, where sulfate is used as an electron acceptor instead of oxygen, producing hydrogen sulfide as a byproduct.

This process leaves behind biosignatures that can be detected by sulfate analysis, providing evidence of microbial life. The detection of oxidized and reduced sulfur could indicate a complete sulfur cycle in ancient times.

Interestingly, although most of the sulfur detected by the Curiosity rover at Gale Crater is in the sulfate form, some samples contained small amounts of sulfide. The presence of both species could have supported the energy requirements of ancient microorganisms.

Mars Missions and Sulfate Analysis

Over the years, several Mars missions have utilized sulfate analysis to search for biosignatures. The Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity both detected sulfates in rocks on the Martian surface. In 2021, the Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero crater in search of signs of past life and to explore the planet's geology.

Since its landing on Mars in 2012, the Curiosity rover has made several discoveries related to sulfate analysis, suggesting that the planet once had a wet environment. The rover has a Mastcam to capture panoramic images of the surface that showed areas rich in sulfates and its own analytical chemistry lab to analyze Martian soil, helping scientists better understand the planet's past habitability.

The next ExoMars mission plans to deliver the Rosalind Franklin rover, equipped with analytical instruments dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry research. The rover will collect soil samples with a drill down to two meters and then analyze them using next-generation instruments.

Challenges and Future Prospects

One of the main challenges of sulfate analysis on Mars is distinguishing abiotic sources of sulfate from those of biological origin. Progress in analytical techniques and identifying new biosignatures could help overcome the issue.

New rovers with more advanced instruments will help scientists identify sulfates more efficiently and accurately. In cooperation with ESA, NASA is also considering sending a spacecraft to Mars to collect cached samples and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

There is also significant interest in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics applications. Rovers are already equipped with robotic arms that can collect samples and introduce them into dedicated chambers for processing. AI is being used to transmit the data and to teach rovers how to navigate by themselves.

Due to the huge amount of data originating from each mission, it is becoming more common to find machine learning systems analyzing the information. Therefore, AI and robotics could play a significant role in astrobiology for detecting signs of life on Mars.


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Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Dr. Stefano Tommasone

Written by

Dr. Stefano Tommasone

Stefano has a strong background in Organic and Supramolecular Chemistry and has a particular interest in the development of synthetic receptors for applications in drug discovery and diagnostics. Stefano has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Salerno in Italy.


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