Their discovery could even help us find life on Mars.
For over a century, scientists have been puzzling over a mysterious, blood-red liquid that's been seeping out of a glacier in Antarctica.
The weird site, later dubbed "Blood Falls," has confounded researchers. But now, a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins may have shed new light on the strange discharge.
They took samples of the red liquid and examined them under a highly specialized transmission electron microscope — and found something surprising, which could even have implications for our search for alien life on other planets.
"As soon as I looked at the microscope images, I noticed that there were these little nanospheres and they were iron-rich, and they have lots of different elements in them besides iron — silicon, calcium, aluminum, sodium — and they all varied," said Ken Livi, a research scientist and coauthor of a new paper about the glacier published in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, in a statement.
The existence of these mysterious nanospheres, which haven't been detected until now, runs counter to the prevailing theory that the blood-red liquid was caused by an abundance of minerals.
Minerals are crystalline in nature, while these nanospheres, which are 100 times smaller than red blood cells, aren't.
Their existence also sheds new light on the microorganisms and bacteria that have lived for "potentially millions of years underneath the saline waters of the Antarctic glacier," according to Livi.
Mars in Antarctica
Interestingly, Livi is a planetary scientist who has studied ways of analyzing biomaterials on Earth and beyond.
"With the advent of the Mars Rover missions, there was an interest in trying to analyze the solids that came out of the waters of Blood Falls as if it was a Martian landing site," Livi said in the statement. "What would happen if a Mars Rover landed in Antarctica? Would it be able to determine what was causing the Blood Falls to be red?"
Unfortunately, the rover vehicles currently examining the Martian surface are designed to detect minerals in their crystalline form, which makes "our methods for identifying these materials... inadequate," according to the researcher.
This means scientists are left with a significant challenge: there isn't a practical way to get a transmission electron microscope to Mars. But if they could find these nanospheres on another planet, they could indicate signs of ancient life, Livi and his team suggest in their paper.
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