A team of people on a dual-cab ute in the Australian Outback.

Members of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the Australian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and the Open Spatial Workshop attend a science field trip to sites in the Pilbara in Western Australia. Image credit: Mike Toillion, NASA Astrobiology.

A team from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) is spending two weeks in Australia to carry out research to help shape its exploration of the Red Planet.

The expedition is focusing on stromatolites – the oldest known macro fossils. It’s estimated stromatolite fossils found in the Dresser Formation of the Pilbara in Western Australia are almost 3.5 billion years old.

The team will compare what they’ve found during a week in the Pilbara, with samples collected from Mars, in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

‘This is really important,’ NASA MEP director Eric Ianson said. ‘Not only to tell us things about life on Earth, when it began and how it may have evolved over time – but also from a NASA standpoint because we are getting ready to return samples from Mars.’

Close-up photo of a stromatolite fossil

Some of Earth’s earliest convincing evidence of life from the c. 3.48 Ga Dresser Formation of the North Pole Dome, Pilbara Craton, Western Australia. Image credit: Mike Toillion, NASA Astrobiology.

‘When we get those samples back to Earth, if we were to see similar patterns in the rocks as we’re seeing here in the Pilbara, it could be a really strong indication that life had previously existed on Mars.’

A separate field trip to Nilpena Ediacara National Park in South Australia will provide more information.

Australian Space Agency director Enrico Palermo said Australia is building a reputation as a capable and talented space nation.

‘The agency is the gateway for the global space sector to engage with Australia in space across a full range of areas, including science,’ Mr Palermo said.

‘This expedition demonstrates how Australia’s geological landscape can support our international partners and provide valuable contributions to space exploration.’

During their time in Australia, the NASA delegation will also participate in public outreach, industry visits, and speaking engagements at the World Mining Congress in Brisbane.