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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) -- Mars Analog Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE)

Project Summary:  The Mars Analog Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) team is using the search for life in the subsurface of the Rio Tinto as a learning experience for guiding the development of technology for drilling, sample handling and instrumentation to be used in the eventual search for subsurface life on Mars.

The MARTE project is a collaboration between the Spanish Centro de Astrobiologia (CAB) and NASA. CAB is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Both NASA and CAB are contributing scientific and engineering expertise and money to the project.

MARTE, a three-year project, has two main objectives:

(1)  To search for and characterize subsurface life at the Rio Tinto;

(2)  To build and test the drilling, sample handling and instrument technologies that will be needed to search for life on Mars.

In the first phase of the project (during 2003) scientists are using a local commercial drilling company and laboratory analysis of samples to search for life. Samples of rock obtained from the drilling are being analyzed to determine if they are inhabited by microorganisms. This part of the project will be used to help our team design a drilling, sample handling and instrumentation system that will be demonstrated at the Rio Tinto in a later phase of the project. The system will be remotely controlled and data will be analyzed by scientists at NASA in California and CAB in Madrid in a simulation of a Mars mission.

One objective of the MARTE project is to train new scientists and engineers. During the project, scientists will produce a lecture series that will be broadcast live on the Internet and archived on the World Wide Web. Scientists and engineers involved in the project will give three lectures per week for three weeks. 

Additional information about the lectures can be found on the Internet at:


Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Why search for life on Mars underground?

Answer: The most important ingredient for life is liquid water. Where there is no liquid water, there is no life. Liquid water does not occur on the martian surface because it is too cold and the pressure is too low. Scientists believe that liquid water occurs on Mars below the surface.  NASA is interested in drilling on Mars to search for life. Surface life on Earth obtains metabolic needs from sunlight. Photosynthesis produces organic compounds from inorganic starting products using sunlight. Life in the Martian subsurface would need to obtain its metabolic needs from chemical energy since there is no sunlight. There are places on Earth where bacteria live underground and use chemical energy to obtain food. Our team believes that the Rio Tinto may be one of these places.

2. Why is searching for life at Rio Tinto a good analog for searching for life on Mars?

Answer: The science of the MARTE experiment is an analog for searching for subsurface life on Mars. MARTE performs the scientific exploration of a previously unexplored subsurface site with the potential to support life. The experiment will attempt to determine whether subsurface life is present, and to characterize how this life obtains its energy. The search for life on Mars would be required to go through a similar process. NASA and CAB hope to use the MARTE experiment to guide development of equipment to be used to explore Mars.

3. Why is Rio Tinto like Mars?

Answer: The Rio Tinto is located in the Iberian Pyrite Belt, a large deposit of sulfide minerals that was formed in an ancient hydrothermal system. The presence of volcanoes and ground ice on Mars suggests that hydrothermal systems should have formed. Mars is rich in iron and sulfur, key ingredients in the formation of sulfide minerals. Basaltic volcanism appears to have been widespread on Mars. On Earth, sulfide minerals are made in hydrothermal systems associated with basaltic volcanism. Thus, mineral deposits like the ones that we are drilling into on MARTE may be found in the martian subsurface.

4. Why Search for Subsurface Life at Rio Tinto?

Answer: A surface ecosystem consisting of extremophile microbes has been identified in the Rio Tinto River. The term extremophiles refers to the fact that the microbes live in "extreme conditions" compared to the conditions that most organisms prefer. In the case of the Tinto River, the water is very acidic and has a low pH (pH=2.3 in most of the river). These acidic conditions in the river are a consequence of the oxidation of iron and sulfur minerals by water. Some of the microbes that live in the river obtain their metabolic needs from iron and sulfur minerals. These are chemoautotrophs, or organisms that live on chemical energy. The scientific objective of our experiment is to search for a similar ecosystem in the subsurface.

5. How will the Rio Tinto experiment help in the exploration of Mars?

Answer: This year's field experiment is focused on searching for life in the subsurface using conventional drilling, sample handling and sample analysis techniques. The results of this experiment will provide ground truth on the science and help guide the technology development for a future experiment in the MARTE project that will simulate a remote drilling mission on Mars. This future experiment will use a drill and sample handling system designed for a Mars mission.

6. How does MARTE help solve problems on Earth?

Answer: The MARTE project is helping to train new scientists and engineers. We have several graduate and undergraduate students working on the project. We are giving live lectures during the experiment in Spain. The lectures are available in Spanish and English. Scientists and engineers involved in the project will give three lectures per week for three weeks. More information about these lectures is on the Internet at:


7. How much does it cost?

Answer: The total project cost is $5,000.000 over three years.

NASA's Carol Stoker, principal investigator of the MARTE three-year experiment being conducted in southwestern Spain by NASA and the Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial (INTA), Spain, prepared this RTQ document. Stoker is a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., in Silicon Valley.

(Related news release)

Prepared 9-30-03

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