SETI Institute Principal Investigator
The common thread that ties biologist Rocco Mancinelli’s varied research projects together is the search for the environmental limits of life. “Because Mars shares many common attributes to Earth, particularly with regard to its early planetary history,” Mancinelli says, “it is the only other planet in the solar system that had any potential for life to arise.” This makes Mars a particularly appropriate test-bed for understanding the origin and early evolution of life. “The primary factor in determining if life could have arisen on Mars lies in determining if liquid water existed on its surface for sufficient time for life to arise,” he says.
Drawing on his expertise in geochemistry, physiology, and ecology, Mancinelli studies the organisms that inhabit environments ranging from the chillingly dry valleys of Antarctica to the acid hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Not content with testing the limits of life on our world, he identified bacteria that flourish in the salty environment of the intertidal zone, then exposed them to the vacuum of space aboard satellites launched by the European Space Agency. “I brought them back,” he recounts, “and lo and behold, they survived!”
- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005