LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (KRQE) – Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working to get a better idea of the past life on Mars and they’re using parts of New Mexico’s own desert to do it. The possibility of life on Mars is still a mystery to most scientists. Exploration missions like NASA’s “Perseverance Rover” landing in 2021 are making those discoveries.

“We’ve spent a lot of time studying the surface of Mars so we know there’s not macroscopic life-like trees or dinosaurs,” said Dr. Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “There could still be microscopic life today.”

However, one of the biggest clues to life on the red planet is coming from here on Earth. They’re getting clues with the help of rocks.

“Rock varnish is forming in these really unfriendly environments to life,” said Dr. Lanza. “They’re arid, it’s really dry. Often there’s changes in temperatures, very hot, very cold.”

In other words, an environment like the desert. Varnish is the dark coating you see on rocks all across New Mexico, including spots like the Petroglyphs. Scientists like Dr. Lanza are taking those findings here in New Mexico and in much of the Southwest, then using them to see if life really could exist on Mars.

“All of these environments that we saw on Earth that have varnish, they’re actually very similar to what we see on Mars,” said Lanza. “Mars is not a very hospitable planet.”

One of the substances found in past Mars missions is manganese, a big component of varnish on Earth’s rocks. In this next mission, they hope to find out if that manganese forms varnish on Mars’ rocks.

“Varnish may be a way for microbial life to thrive in these extreme environments,” said Lanza. “This might be a clue to us that we should look there for signs of life.”

Los Alamos National Laboratory is also now producing a seven-episode podcast called Mars Technica, further exploring these ideas as they contribute to the next mission to Mars. The first episodes of the series are now available online.