Is the surface of Mars really sterile, or could there be still-undiscovered traces of life littering this hostile landscape? Chemist Richard Quinn focuses on understanding the reactive processes that take place on the surface of the Red Planet, and how these might give a better idea of the potential for habitable environments. As the Viking landers found three decades ago, there is an abundance of complex, photochemically driven oxidative processes on Mars. These are comprised of atmosphere, dust, and soil interactions. Richard says that the key to understanding martian carbon chemistry is to unravel the dominant reaction mechanisms and kinetics of soil reactivity and organic compound decomposition.
The important point is that such chemistry may have decomposed or modified organic material that could have survived from an earlier flowering of life on Mars. Richard is heavily involved in applying his chemical research to the design of instruments and schemes for new probes that will eventually sift the martian soil for signs of ancient inhabitants.