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Richland scientist working with NASA in search for signs of ancient life on Mars

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RICHLAND, WA - A local scientist has traveled all over the world doing research. Now, it's going galactic: she's working with NASA in the search for signs of ancient life on Mars. Some of that work is being done in the EMSL Lab at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

"The question is, did life every emerge on Mars? If it did, did it take hold? If it did, can we find evidence of it? And if we can't, why not? Why didn't it start there, because all the conditions were right," said Scientist Sherry Cady. Those are the types of questions she ponders on the daily.

"Mars is awful cold and awful dry right now but very early in Mars history and very early in Earth history, they were very similar planets and we know life emerged here," said Cady.

Cady is an expert on rocks and microbials. With the right high-tech instruments and a lot of smarts, she sees things in rocks that the rest of us do not.

"Whether there's organics, are there cells, whether there are features in the rocks or minerals that indicate microbial life was there," said Cady.

Billion year old earth rocks from far off places like Morocco, Iceland and New Zealand do show signs of early life. 

"Now we have projects that are focused on environments that are very much like ancient Mars, as close as we can get to ancient Mars, even though we're still here on earth," said Cady.

One such place is a Chilean desert region that boasts some old hot springs. Cady says what researchers found there is encouraging.

"Yep, there's life there and there are organics preserved in those rocks," said Cady.

Organics are any type of remains from any living organism, even microbials that are too small for the eye to see.

"We're looking for microbial life on Mars, we're not looking for little green men. we know that early earth had bacteria and it lived on rocks and in wet places. so we're looking for the remains of micro-organisms when we're searching for life on Mars," said Cady.

Cady is working under a nearly $1.5 million grant over the next several years on this project. The work will help NASA's 2020 Mars rover mission in knowing what to look for on the red planet and which samples need analyzing and sent back to earth. The European Space Agency is also planning a 2020 Mars mission.