WSU astrobiologist proposes fleet of probes to seek life on Mars

Apr 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.

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User comments : 6

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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.