Open University gets funds to explore life on Mars
The Open University (OU) has been awarded nearly £700,000 to research the potential for life on Mars.
The three separate funding awards came from the UK Space Agency's £2m allocation for the exploration of Mars.
Research at the Milton Keynes-based university will include looking at mineral formation on the planet's surface and examining if that environment could support life.
A spokesperson said the funds would allow it to "pursue exciting science".
Prof Simon Kelley, from the Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR), said: "We have an excellent laboratory infrastructure here at the OU, and that's allowing us to study potential habitats that might support life on Mars.
"I don't think there is life on Mars now, the conditions on the surface are just too extreme, but if you ask me has there ever been life on Mars, that's a different question - maybe?"
In one of the projects, Prof Kelley and colleague Dr Susanne Schwenzer will work with Dr John Bridges at Leicester University to study minerals formed when hot or cold water interacts with rocks on Mars.
It is linked to the Nasa project Mars Science Lab (MSL) which lands on the planet on 6 August and will be studying a meteor crater on its surface.
"When a meteorite hits a planet like Mars it deposits a huge amount of heat so when it hits, all the water in the rocks around it flows around it - it's called a hydrothermal system and it forms minerals," explained Prof Kelley.
"If we can find out what is actually on the surface of Mars, we can calculate what the temperatures were and whether that was a suitable habitat for some sort of bug to be living there."
In other projects, Dr Karen Olsson-Francis's five-year fellowship will look at whether life might have survived just by living on the planet's rocks.
She will subject insects to the conditions on Mars' surface, using the university's special chambers which can reproduce such an environment.
And Dr Axel Hagermann has been awarded funds to investigate a phenomenon called the "solid state greenhouse effect" in the Martian environment, which is the importance of the ice caps in influencing the planet's climate.