A British rock expert who has spent his life searching for oil is spearheading the hunt for ET.
Professor John Parnell is one of the world’s leading experts in spotting signs of life in rocks.
The geologist learned the art while studying oil and gas exploration at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
Now he is using his skills to train boffins deployed to search for aliens in Europe’s Mars rover mission.
Those running the project will be tasked with choosing the most likely stones to show signs of life on the planet’s surface.
They will have to make the vital selection solely by studying pictures sent back by the rover as it trundles over the planet’s surface 34 million miles away.
It will only be possible to analyse a limited number of samples in detail before the rover’s power gives out – making the choice critical in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
John’s rock knowledge has thrust him to the forefront of the search for aliens from his home on the island of Cumbrae off Scotland’s west coast.
Using a video link from his kitchen he is directing ET hunters in practice missions across Europe.
He said: "The search for life on Mars will be through the eyes of a rover trundling over the surface.
"What we need to do is develop the skill to look at those images and predict which samples are worth examining in more detail.
"Which samples might have evidence of either life, or habitats for life. We only have a certain number of detailed analyses that are possible so one really has to get that right.
"There’s also a tactical approach to this. It may be that we feel that we’re losing power more quickly than we expected.
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"In that case it’s important you take the opportunities you’ve got rather than leaving them for an opportunity that may not come about.
"The search for life on Mars could answer important questions about how life formed on Earth, and what our planet looked like millions of years ago.’’
The European Space Agency’s Mars rover mission had been due to launch on a Russian rocket in September and land eight months later.
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The Ukraine invasion has scuppered those plans but scientists still hope it can go ahead next year (2023).
In the meantime John is focused on passing on his skill at spotting life signs from images of rocks from some of the world’s most difficult to reach locations to space boffins.
Stones with gas bubbles are potential habitats because they offer space where microbes could live beneath the surface.
Rocks with veins of minerals where water would have passed through are also worth studying.
John is optimistic life will be found on Mars.
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