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Computer modeling and experimental work on the astrobiological implications of the martian subsurface ionising radiation environment

Dartnell, L.R.; (2008) Computer modeling and experimental work on the astrobiological implications of the martian subsurface ionising radiation environment. Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

Any microbial life extant in the top meters of the martian subsurface is likely to be held dormant for long periods of time by the current permafrost conditions. In this potential habitable zone, a major environmental hazard is the ionising radiation field generated by the flux of exogenous energetic particles: solar energetic protons and galactic cosmic rays. The research reported here constitutes the first multidisciplinary approach to assessing the astrobiological impact of this radiation on Mars. A sophisticated computer model has been constructed de novo to characterise this complex subsurface ionising radiation field and explore the influence of variation in crucial parameters such as atmospheric density, surface composition, and primary radiation spectra. Microbiological work has been conducted to isolate novel cold-tolerant bacterial strains from the Dry Valleys environment of Antarctica, an analogue site to the martian surface, and determine their phylogenetic diversity and survival under high-dose gamma-ray exposure frozen at -79!C, a temperature characteristic of the martian mid-latitude permafrost. Original results are presented pertinent to microbial survival time, persistence of organic biomarkers, and calibration of the optically stimulated luminescence dating technique, as a function of depth. The model predicts a population of radiation resistant cells to survive in martian permafrost soil for 450,000 years at 2 m depth, the proposed drill length of the ExoMars rover. The Antarctic culturing studies identified representatives of four bacterial genera. The novel isolate Brevundimonas sp. MV.7 is found to show 99% 16S sequence similarity to cells discovered in NASA spacecraft assembly clean rooms, with the experimental irradiation determining this strain to suffer 10-6 population inactivation after a radiation dose of 7.5 kGy in martian permafrost conditions. Integrating the modelling and experimental irradiation, this research finds a contaminant population of such cells deposited just beneath the martian surface would survive the ambient cosmic radiation field for 117,000 years.

Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Title:Computer modeling and experimental work on the astrobiological implications of the martian subsurface ionising radiation environment
Open access status:An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language:English
UCL classification:UCL > School of BEAMS > Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences > CoMPLEX - Maths and Physics in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology

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