WSU astrobiologist proposes fleet of probes to seek life on Mars

April 23, 2012
Washington State University astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch is leading a proposal to send a small fleet of life sensors to Mars. Credit: Washington State University

A Washington State University astrobiologist is leading a group of 20 scientists in calling for a mission to Mars with "a strong and comprehensive life detection component." At the heart of their proposal is a small fleet of sensor packages that can punch into the Martian soil and run a range of tests for signs of ancient or existing life.

They call the mission BOLD. It's both an acronym for Biological Oxidant and Life Detection and a nod to the proposal's chutzpah. The proposal, which comes as NASA is reevaluating its , appears in the journal Planetary and Space Science.

"We really want to address the big questions on Mars and not fiddle around," says Dirk Schulze-Makuch, whose earlier proposals have included an economical one-way trip to the red planet. "With the money for space exploration drying up, we finally have to get some exciting results that not only the experts and scientists in the field are interested in but that the public is interested too."

The BOLD mission would feature six 130-pound probes that could be dropped to various locations. Shaped like inverted pyramids, they would parachute to the surface and thrust a soil sampler nearly a foot into the ground upon landing. On-board instrumentation would then conduct half a dozen experiments, transmitting data to an orbiter overhead.

The soil analyzer would moisten a sample and measure inorganic ions, pH and light characteristics that might get at the sample's concentration of hydrogen peroxide. Schulze-Makuch has hypothesized that microbial organisms on Mars could be using a mixture of water and as their internal fluid. The compound might also account for several of the findings of the Viking Mars landers in the late 1970s.

The probe's microscopic imager would look for shapes similar to known terrestrial .

Another instrument would look for single long molecules similar to the long created by life on earth.

Some experiments would repeat work done by the Viking landers but with a greater precision that could detect previously overlooked organic material.

Each probe would have about a 50-50 chance of landing successfully. But with the redundancy of six probes, the chance of one succeeding is better than 98 percent.

Explore further: NASA's Marks 30th Anniversary of Mars Viking Mission

Related Stories

Viking landers did detect organics on Mars

January 6, 2011

( -- In 1976 the NASA Viking landers took samples of soil on Mars and tested them for signs of organic carbon. A reinterpretation of the results now suggests the samples did contain organic compounds, but the ...

Could Curiosity determine if Viking found life on Mars?

November 30, 2011

One of the most controversial and long-debated aspects of Mars exploration has been the results of the Viking landers’ life-detection experiments back in the 1970s. While the preliminary findings were consistent with ...

Is this proof of life on Mars?

April 13, 2012

The Curiosity rover is currently on its way to Mars, scheduled to make a dramatic landing within Gale Crater in mid-August and begin its hunt for the geologic signatures of a watery, life-friendly past. Solid evidence that ...

Recommended for you

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...

Researchers find a new way to weigh a star

October 5, 2015

Researchers from the University of Southampton have developed a new method for measuring the mass of pulsars – highly magnetised rotating neutron stars formed from the remains of massive stars after they explode into supernovae.

NASA selects investigations for future key planetary mission

October 1, 2015

NASA has selected five science investigations for refinement during the next year as a first step in choosing one or two missions for flight opportunities as early as 2020. Three of those chosen have ties to NASA's Jet Propulsion ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
Six probes with 50-50 chance? Well, I've had seven straight reds on a roullette, so I wouldn't trust those odds...
1 / 5 (1) Apr 23, 2012
Would you trust a dude with his kind of fashion sense?
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 23, 2012
No palm trees on his shirt is a good sign.
I thought that all the probes and rovers were looking for microbes? You mean that they were not?
Yes, the money for space exploration is drying up, so why not let the Chinese do it first and take all the chances?
1 / 5 (1) Apr 23, 2012
The last probes to look for microbes explicitly were the Viking landers, back in the 70s. The results were not exactly five sigma.
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
When he speaks of the 50 percent predicted failure (per probe), I wonder if that is with regard to the entire flight or just the part after the probes have arrived and are in orbit around Mars?

I like the model of engineering lots of redundant, less expensive devices. This isn't manned flight, after all.
not rated yet Apr 26, 2012
They could also look for other kinds of footprints. For example organic molecules in the atmosphere. They shouold also pay special attention to caves, and places that may have water or recent volcanic activity.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.