Life on Mars? Ursinus Grad Finds Boron on Red Planet

Patrick Gasda ’07 has made a discovery that indicates habitable groundwater once flowed on the surface of Mars.

Gasda, a postdoctoral research fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is leading a team that recently found boron on the arid planet. The element is left behind by evaporated water in dry regions on Earth.

“No prior mission to Mars has found boron,” Gasda said in a news release distributed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “If the boron that we found in calcium sulfate mineral veins on Mars is similar to what we see on Earth, it would indicate that the groundwater of ancient Mars that formed these veins would have been 0 to 60 degrees Celsius [32 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit] and neutral-to-alkaline pH.”

The temperature, pH and dissolved mineral content of the groundwater could make it habitable, according to the laboratory. The boron was identified by the ChemCam, which is aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover exploring Mars. The laser-shooting instrument allows scientists to analyze the elemental composition of Martian rocks.

Last summer, Ursinus students Ethan Haldeman ’18, a chemistry and physics major from Manheim, Pa., and Veronica Sanford ’17, a physics major from York, Pa., worked as part of Gasda’s research team. The students helped Gasda analyze data from the ChemCam.

“This is an example of directly seeing the influence my work has had on the field of science as a whole,” Haldeman said. “It is a great feeling to know that the research I performed has contributed to the first direct detection of boron on Mars. Being a part of a discovery like this also helps reinforce that science is not just classes and tests, but performing experiments and making new discoveries.” 

Sanford added, “It’s a very surreal feeling to know that I was part of the discovery of an element on Mars, especially boron. Boron has such important implications regarding possible life on Mars; its positive identification is so important going forward. Being able to work with a team of such talented, insightful, and enthusiastic scientists in Los Alamos was already an amazing experience, and the verification of boron makes my time there even more meaningful.”

Prior to the boron discovery, ChemCam uncovered surprising facts about Mars geology, including the discovery of igneous rocks, which are solidified from lava or magma.

Whether Martian life has ever existed is still unknown, scientists at the lab say. The discovery of boron is only one of several recent findings related to the composition of Martian rocks, according to the Los Alamos lab. The Curiosity rover is climbing a layered Martian mountain and finding rock-composition evidence of how ancient lakes and wet underground environments changed, billions of years ago, in ways that affected their favorability for microbial life.

“At Ursinus, I learned the fundamentals that helped me get me interested in space science and science in general,” Gasda said. –by Ed Moorhouse