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Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Ph.D. Headshot

A Bold New Chance for Mars Exploration!

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Budgetary pressures on science including planetary exploration are enormous. Mars is one of the primary goals of planetary exploration due to its closeness and many similarities to Earth. In fact, Mars is the only other planet in our Solar System where a future presence of humans can be considered. The Mars Science Laboratory is currently on its way to Mars, but beyond the landing of the rover Curiosity, future Mars exploration seems to be uncertain. Yet, we should take pride that NASA has the best record of any space agency and the most sophisticated technology to land probes and rovers on Mars successfully. Many of us feel it would be a grave mistake to retreat from planetary exploration, particularly Mars exploration. Mars is also the only planetary body in our Solar System, where we could find life in the near future -- a theme and objective, which resonates well with the public. However, as laudable this goal is, we still have to be aware of achieving maximum return with minimum resources and conduct space exploration in a cost-conscientious way.

To address the question of life on Mars in a cost-conscientious way, we called for a mission to Mars with a strong and comprehensive life detection component. At the heart of our proposal, just published in the journal Planetary Space and Science, is a small fleet of penetrators that can punch into the Martian soil and run a range of tests for signs of ancient or existing life. We call this mission BOLD and it is both an acronym for Biological Oxidant and Life Detection and a nod to the proposal's ambition.

With this mission proposal, we anticipate to address the big questions on Mars in a much more straightforward way. With the money for space exploration drying up, we 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 in as well. The BOLD mission would feature six 130-pound probes that could be dropped to various locations. Shaped like inverted cones, 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 measure inorganic ions, pH and the concentration of oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide, since microbial organisms could be adapted to the harsh conditions on Mars by using a mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide as their internal fluid. Hydrogen peroxide or perchlorates 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 microfossils, while another instrument (Nanopore-ARROW Instrument) would look for single long molecules similar to the long nucleic acids created by life forms on Earth. Other experiments would repeat work done by the Viking landers, but with greater precision that could detect previously overlooked organic material and re-examine the question of the presence of life on Mars (note: the Viking lander's results from the '70s were inconclusive). Each probe would have about a 50-50 chance of landing successfully. But with the redundancy of six probes, the chance of at least one succeeding is better than 98 percent, which is a very high likelihood for success given the past track record for Mars landing missions.

The proposal comes at a time when NASA is reevaluating its Mars exploration program. In order to find a way out of the current situation, a workshop has been announced on "Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration" to be held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in the Houston area, June 12-14, 2012. It is to be hoped that the Mars program within NASA can be reinvigorated. What many of us eventually like to see in their lifetime are humans walking on Mars. However, before this grand goal can be achieved, robotic exploration has to move forward and we have to do this in a way that both prepares for a later anticipated human landing and to answer the bigger questions that are close to our heart: Are we alone and is there life on Mars?

Let there be no mistake. We live in a dangerous universe. If we do not take steps to explore our planetary neighborhood and eventually build outposts on other worlds, we will follow in the footsteps of the dinosaurs. Certainly, there is no replacement for Earth, and Mars will never be a replacement for Earth. But we do need to move forward, and mission proposals, such as BOLD, will be the first step toward a grand vision. We do have the technology, but the question is: do we also have the political will? All we can do is encourage Congress to provide NASA with the necessary funds to achieve its mission, so that NASA can build on its past great accomplishments. Let's take up a BOLD new chance for Mars exploration!