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 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 also 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 -80°C, a temperature characteristic of the martian mid-latitude permafrost.
Dr. Lewis Dartnell is an astrobiology researcher based at the Centre for Planetary Sciences, University College London. He studies how life, and signs of its existence, might survive the intense cosmic radiation on the surface of Mars. He is the author of the book "Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide".