NASA boffins say that Mars rovers could unearth evidence of alien life if they dig seven feet down into the Red Planet.

The hunt for extra-terrestrials involves discovering certain amino acids on Mars, which in turn are a component to build proteins.

However, new research by the US space agency published in the journal Astrobiology suggests cosmic rays are destroying this evidence on Mars faster than we realised.

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Alexander Pavlov, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said: "Current Mars rover missions drill down to about two inches.

"At those depths, it would take only 20million years to destroy amino acids completely.

"The addition of perchlorates and water increases the rate of amino acid destruction even further."

Although it sounds like a long time, 20m years is just a blip when hunting for proof of ancient life from billions of years ago, when Mars was much more like Earth.

NASA now reckons that the rovers will need to dig around 6.6ft deep to make a breakthrough and find amino acids that haven't been degraded by ionising radiation from space.

Pavlov, who was the lead author of the study, continued: "Missions with shallow drill sampling have to seek recently exposed outcrops — e.g., recent microcraters with ages less than 10m years or the material ejected from such craters."

There is evidence to suggest that, billions of years ago, Mars had a thick atmosphere and global magnetic field shields like Earth.

This atmosphere would have allowed for liquid on the Red Planet. It also would have blocked cosmic rays from reaching the surface.

Cosmic rays are generated by powerful events in space such as exploding stars and solar flares.

They penetrate solid rock and ionise organic molecules, thus destroying them.

To work out how quickly cosmic rays destroy amino acids, the scientists blasted samples kept at varying temperatures with varying levels of gamma radiation, simulating around 80m years of cosmic ray exposure.

It was the first experiment to mix amino acids with simulated Martian soil.

"Our work is the first comprehensive study where the destruction (radiolysis) of a broad range of amino acids was studied under a variety of Mars-relevant factors (temperature, water content, perchlorate abundance) and the rates of radiolysis were compared," Pavlov explained.

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"It turns out that the addition of silicates and particularly silicates with perchlorates greatly increases the destruction rates of amino acids."

Amino acids are yet to be found on Mars. They have been found on meteorites, including one from Mars, although it remains unclear how they got there.

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