News from Mars: ExoLance Project to Hunt for Life

exolance-2The search for life on Mars has been ongoing, and predates the deployment of the Curiosity rover by many years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that if signs of life are to be truly found, they won’t turn up by scratching around on the surface. Beyond Curiosity’s own slated inspection of Mount Sharp (where it just arrived!) NASA has some long-range plans that reach deeper.

Outside of NASA’s InSight Lander, which is set to launch in the spring of 2016, there’s Explore Mars’ plan to look for signs of life beneath the surface. A private organization made up technologists and former NASA engineers, their plan is to drop supersonic lances onto the planet that will penetrate deep into the Martian soil to seek out protected, potentially wet strata where life might still exist.

exolanceKnown as ExoLance, the project is designed to take up where the Viking missions of the late 1970s left off. In these first successful Mars landers, there was an experiment on board that looked for signs of life in the Martian soil. This consisted of the Viking lander scooping up soil, depositing it inside the automatic laboratory in the lander, squirted a nutrient solution into the sample, and analyzing the gases given off that might indicate the presence of life.

The Viking experiment did give off gases that seemed like they were due to living organisms, but it later discovered that these were due to chemical reactions due to the extremely dry conditions and constant bombardment of UV radiation. Because of this, NASA has preferred to focus more on geology to gain a better understanding of the Martian environment rather than looking for life directly.

exolance-3But Explore Mars wants to go back to the direct approach by combining an experiment similar to the Viking lab with a delivery system based on the US Air Force’s bunker-buster weapons. They also hope to incorporate technology developed for the Curiosity rover, which includes reusing the aeroshell that protected the Curiosity rover as it made its descent to the Martian surface in 2012.

When the shell reaches Mars, it will open up to reveal a delivery vehicle similar to the Skycrane that delivered Curiosity to the surface by hovering under rocket power while it winched the lander down. In the case of the ExoLance, the vehicle – which is appropriately called a Quiver – will hover in place. But instead of lowering a rover, it will fire multiple penetrator probes at the ground.

exolance-1These perpetrators, called Arrows, are small, lightweight versions of the bunker-buster bombs that were developed by the US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. However, instead of exploding, the Arrows will strike the surface at supersonic speeds to bore deep into the ground and (similar to NASA’s Deep Space 2 probe) split in two to deploy a cache of scientific equipment packed into the nose.

While the tail section remains on the surface to act as a transmitter back to Earth, the nose bores about 5 m (16 ft) into the surface to find protected layers that may contain water, but which are shielded against the deadly surface radiation. Once in position, the Arrow activates its experiment, which is designed to not only detect signs of living organisms, but also to determine if the life signs are those of microbes similar to those found on Earth, or have a completely different origin.

exolance-4The mission is the subject of an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising US$250,000. The group says that within a year of raising its Indiegogo funding, it would develop and build Arrow prototypes and test them in the Mojave Desert by dropping them from aircraft. The idea is not only to see if the experiments can survive the impact, but also to make sure that the penetrators don’t dig in too deep or too shallow.

In addition, the group expects the design to change as they deals with problems, such as the volume of the cylinder, batteries, deploying the tether linking the two segments, and making sure the components can withstand the impact. In the second year, the group plans to enact Phase II, which would concentrate on developing the microbial experiments. If this is successful, they plan to approach NASA or commercial companies to arrange delivering ExoLance to Mars.

The crowdfunding campaign will run until September 29th, and has raised a total of $15,680 of their projected goal. To check out this campaign, or to contribute, click here. And be sure to check out Explore Mars’ promotional video below:


News from Mars: Laser-Blasting and Soil Sampling

mars_lifeAs the exploration of Mars goes on, the small army of robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters continue to provide us with information, photographs and discoveries that remind us of how great a mystery the Red Planet truly is. For instance, in the past month, two major stories have been announced concerning the nature of Martian soil, its ancient history, and some of the more exciting moments in it’s exploration.

For example, Curiosity made news as its high resolution camera caught an image of sparks being generated as it zapped a Martian rock. In it’s lifetime, the rover has used its million watt Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser to zap over 600 rock or soil targets as part of its mission. However, this was the first time that the rover team was able to get the arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the action as it occurred.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamThe ChemCam laser is used to determine the composition of Martian rocks and soils at a distance of up to 8 meters (25 feet). By hitting targets with several high-energy pulses, it is able to yield preliminary data for the scientists and engineers back at Earth to help them decide if a target warrants a closer investigation and, in rare cases, sampling and drilling activities.

ChemCam works through a process called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. The laser hits a target with pulses to generate sparks, whose spectra provide information about which chemical elements are in the target. Successive laser shots are fired in sequence to gradually blast away thin layers of material. Each shot exposes a slightly deeper layer for examination by the ChemCam spectrometer.

Mars_novarockAs Curiosity fired deeper into the target rock – named “Nova” – it showed an increasing concentration of aluminum as the sequential laser blasts penetrated through the uninteresting dust on the rock’s surface. Silicon and sodium were also detected. As Sylvestre Maurice, ChemCam’s Deputy Principal Investigator at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, said in a statement:

This is so exciting! The ChemCam laser has fired more than 150,000 times on Mars, but this is the first time we see the plasma plume that is created… Each time the laser hits a target, the plasma light is caught and analyzed by ChemCam’s spectrometers. What the new images add is confirmation that the size and shape of the spark are what we anticipated under Martian conditions.

During it’s first year on Mars, Curiosity has already accomplished its primary objective of discovering a habitable zone on Mars that contains the minerals necessary to support microbial life billions of years ago when Mars was wetter and warmer. Currently, the rover is driving swiftly to the base of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater, where it hopes to find more.

Mars_soilIn that same vein, according to new geological information obtained by Curiosty’s images and soil examinations, samples that were pulled out of a crater that is estimated to be some 3.7 billion years old contain more evidence that Mars was once much warmer and wetter. These findings were announced in a recent paper published in the online edition of Geology by University of Oregon geologist Gregory Retallack.

Unlike Earth, the Martian landscape is littered with loose rocks from impacts or layered by catastrophic floods. However, recent images from Curiosity from the Gale Crater reveal Earth-like soil profiles with cracked surfaces lined with sulfate, ellipsoidal hollows and concentrations of sulfate comparable with soils in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys and Chile’s Atacama Desert.

mars-180-degrees-panorama_croppedRetallack, the paper’s lone author, studied mineral and chemical data published by researchers closely tied with the Curiosity mission. As a professor of geological sciences and co-director of paleontology research at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, he internationally known as an expert on the recognition of paleosols – ancient fossilized soils contained in rocks.

As he explains in the paper:

The pictures were the first clue, but then all the data really nailed it. The key to this discovery has been the superb chemical and mineral analytical capability of the Curiosity Rover, which is an order of magnitude improvement over earlier generations of rovers. The new data show clear chemical weathering trends, and clay accumulation at the expense of the mineral olivine, as expected in soils on Earth. Phosphorus depletion within the profiles is especially tantalizing, because it attributed to microbial activity on Earth.

dryvalleysThe ancient soils do not prove that Mars once contained life, but they do add to growing evidence that an early, wetter and warmer Mars was more habitable than the planet has been in the past 3 billion years. Surface cracks in the deeply buried soils suggest typical soil clods. Vesicular hollows, or rounded holes, and sulfate concentrations, he said, are both features of desert soils on Earth.

Since Curiosity is currently on its way to Mount Sharp, future missions will be needed to fully explore these features. But as Retallack explained, the parallels with Earth are quite exciting:

None of these features is seen in younger surface soils of Mars. The exploration of Mars, like that of other planetary bodies, commonly turns up unexpected discoveries, but it is equally unexpected to discover such familiar ground.

The newly discovered soils indicate that more benign and habitable soil condition existed on Mars than previously expected. What’s more, their dating to 3.7 billion years ago places them within a transition period when the planet went from an early, benign water cycle to the acidic and arid Mars of today. This is especially important since major changes were taking place on Earth at around the same time.

Living-Mars.2Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, life on Earth is believed to have emerged and began diversifying. But some scientists have theorized that potential evidence that might indicate that life existed on Earth earlier may have been destroyed by tectonic activity, which did not occur on Mars. Basically, it may offer some credence to the theory that while flourished on Earth, it originated on Mars.

One person who supports this theory is Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida.  In the past, he has speculated that life is more likely to have originated on a soil planet like Mars than a water planet like Earth. In an email interview with Science Daily, Benner wrote that Retallack’s paper:

[S]hows not only soils that might be direct products of an early Martian life, but also the wet-dry cycles that many models require for the emergence of life.

So in addition to shedding light on the mysteries of Mars, Curiosity has also been pivotal in addressing some major questions which only increase the mystery of our own existence. Did life as we know it originate on Mars but flourish on Earth? Are there still some remnants of this microbial “Eden” being preserved deep within the soil and rocks? And could life exist there again some day?

All good questions that will no doubt keep robotic rovers, orbiters, landers, and even manned missions busy for many decades to come! In the meantime, check out the video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Curiosity’s spark-generating laser blast being caught on tape:


News from Mars: Martian Water and Earth Organisms

curiosity_peakThis August, the Curiosity Rover will be celebrating its second anniversary of roving around the Red Planet. And ever since it made landfall, Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory has repeatedly uncovered signs that Mars was once very like Earth. Basically, it has become undeniable that water once flowed freely over the surface of this barren and uninhabitable world. And this finding, much to the delight of futurists and sci-fi enthusiasts everywhere, is likely to pave the way for human settlement.

Liquid water disappeared from Mars’ surface millions of years ago, leaving behind tantalizing clues about the planet’s ancient past—clues that the MSL has been deciphering for the past 22 months. This began last year when Curiosity found rounded pebbles in the Glenelg region, an indication that a stream once flowed at the site. This was followed by the discovery of rocky outcroppings where the remains of an ancient stream bed consisting of water-worn gravel that was washed down from the rim of Gale Crater.

mountsharp_galecraterThe rover has since moved to a location about 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) away from the Gale Crater landing site, where scientists expect to make even more discoveries. The new location is named Kimberly, after a region of northwestern Australia. As Dawn Sumner, a UC Davis geology professor and co-investigator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory team, explained:

Our findings are showing that Mars is a planet that was once a whole lot like Earth. All the rocks we’ve seen on this mission are sediments that have been deposited by water. We’ve found almost no sandstone deposited by wind.

Sumner is working from Curiosity mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena while on sabbatical from UC Davis, exploring whether the planet ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life. She is also one of several UC scientists and engineers who have been vital to the success of the Curiosity mission, which is part of NASA’s long-term plan to pave the way for sending astronauts to Mars.

Living-Mars.2In that vein, research continues here on Earth to see exactly what kind of life can survive in the harsh Martian environment. And now,  research suggests that methanogens – among the simplest and oldest organisms on Earth – could survive on Mars. These microorganisms are typically found in swamps and marshes, where they use hydrogen as their energy source and carbon dioxide as their carbon source to produce methane (aka. natural gas).

As an anaerobic bacteria, methanogens don’t require require oxygen or organic nutrients to live, and are non-photosynthetic. Hence, they would be able to exist in sub-surface environments and would therefore be ideal candidates for life on Mars. Rebecca Mickol, a doctoral student in space and planetary sciences at the University of Arkansas, subjected two species of methanogens to Martian conditions to see how they would fair on the Red Planet.

methanogens485These strains included Methanothermobacter wolfeii and Methanobacterium formicicum, both of which survived the Martian freeze-thaw cycles that Mickol replicated in her experiments. This consisted of testing the species for their ability to withstand Martian freeze-thaw cycles that are below the organisms’ ideal growth temperatures. As she explained it:

The surface temperature on Mars varies widely, often ranging between minus 90 degrees Celsius and 27 degrees Celsius over one Martian day. If any life were to exist on Mars right now, it would at least have to survive that temperature range. The survival of these two methanogen species exposed to long-term freeze/thaw cycles suggests methanogens could potentially inhabit the subsurface of Mars.

Mickol conducted the study with Timothy Kral, professor of biological sciences in the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences and lead scientist on the project. She presented her work at the 2014 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, which was held from May 17th to 20th in Boston.

maven_atmosphereThe two species were selected because one is a hyperthermophile, meaning it thrives under extremely hot temperatures, and the other is a thermophile, which thrives under warm temperatures. Since the 1990s, Kral has been studying methanogens and examining their ability to survive on Mars. In 2004, scientists discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere, and immediately the question of the source became an important one. According to Kral:

When they made that discovery, we were really excited because you ask the question ‘What’s the source of that methane?. One possibility would be methanogens.

Understanding the makeup of Mars atmosphere and ecology is another major step towards ensuring that life can exist there again someday. From Red Planet, to Blue Planet, to Green Planet… it all begins with a fundamental understanding of what is currently able to withstand the Martian environment. And once this foundation is secured, our ecologists and environmental engineers can begin contemplating what it will take to create a viable atmosphere and sustainable sources of water there someday.

terraformingSources:, (2)

News from Mars: Evidence of Falling Snow

Mars-snow-header-640x353Ever since astronomers first looked up at Mars, they discerned features that few could accurately identify. For many years, speculations about irrigation, canals, and a Martian civilization abounded, firing people’s imaginations and fiction. It was not until more recently, with the deployment of the Viking probe, that Mars’ surface features have come to be seen for what they are.

Thanks several more probes, and the tireless work of rover such as Opptorunity and Curiosity, scientists have been able to amass evidence and get a first hand look at the surface. Nevertheless, they are still hard-pressed to explain everything that they’ve seen. And while much evidence exists that rivers and lakes once dotted the landscape, other geological features exist which don’t fit that model.

curiosity_rocksHowever, a recent report from Brown University has presented evidence that snowfall may be one answer. It has long been known that ice exists at the polar caps, but actual snowfall is a very specific meteorological feature, one that has serious implications for early Martian conditions. This is just another indication that Mars hosted an environment that was very much like Earths.

And this is not the first time that snow on Mars has been suggested. In 2008, NASA announced having detected snow falling from Martian clouds, but it was entirely vaporized before reaching the ground. The Brown researchers claim that snowfall in the past, and buildup on the surface leading to melting and runoff, could have created many of the tributary networks observed near tall mountain-ranges.

mars_atmoTo back this claim up, the team used a computer simulation from the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique called the Mars global circulation model (GCM). This model compiles evidence about the early composition of the red planet’s atmosphere to predict global circulation patterns. And since other models predict that Mars was quite cold, the program indicated the highest probability of snowfall over the densest valley systems.

Lead researcher Kat Scanlon also relied on her background in orographic studies (science for “studying mountains”) in Hawaii to arrive at this hypothesis. This includes how tall mountains lead to divergent weather patterns on either side, with warm, wet conditions one and cold, dry ones on the other. NASA’s Curiosity rover also was intrinsic, thanks to recent information that might explain why Mars no longer displays this kind of behavior.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamIn short, Curiosity determined that the planet is losing its atmosphere. It has taken detailed assays of the current atmosphere, which is almost entirely carbon dioxide and about 0.6% the pressure of Earth’s at sea-level. More notably, it has used its ability to laser-blast solid samples and analyze the resulting vapor to determine that Mars has an unusually high ratio of heavy to light isotopes — most importantly of deuterium to hydrogen.

The main explanation for this is atmospheric loss, since light isotopes will escape slightly more quickly than heavy. Over billions of years, this can lead to non-standard isotope levels the show a loss of atmosphere. One major theory that might explain this loss say that about 4.2 million years ago Mars collided with an object about the size of Pluto. An impact from this body would have caused a huge expulsion of atmosphere, followed by a slow, continued loss from then on.

All of this plays into the larger question of life on Mars. Is there, or was there, ever life? Most likely, there was, as all the elements – water, atmosphere, clay minerals – appear to have been there at one time. And while scientists might still stumble upon a Lake Vostok-like reserve of microbial life under the surface, it seems most likely that Mars most fertile days is behind it.

However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t once again host life-sustaining conditions. And with some tweaking, of the ecological engineering – aka. terraforming – variety, it could once again.