Hunting for microbial life throughout the solar system
From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:
A robotic lander surveys a frosty landscape near the northern pole of Mars sometime in the 2020s. Revving up a powerful 1-meter drill, it bores into the polar subsurface, extracts a sample, and runs it through a battery of cleverly designed instruments. Maybe, just maybe, it uncovers the chemical residues of living organisms.
This is the proposed Icebreaker Life mission, a couch-sized lander that would till through the same frozen soil visited by NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft in 2008 to find evidence of ancient microbes. Icebreaker is not alone. Within the astrobiological community, there is a growing consensus that it’s time to directly hunt for life elsewhere in the solar system. No such experiment has been attempted since the 1976 twin Viking landers’ life-detection instruments turned up inconclusive results on Mars. But this year, NASA put out a call to develop technology to go to another world and look for signatures of microbial life, the first such solicitation in more than 40 years.
“We’ve got places that are so intriguing that it’s becoming much more compelling to look for life,” says atmospheric scientist Hunter Waite of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX.
And in October, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a detailed report, titled An Astrobiology Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe, urging NASA to make astrobiology an integral part of a broad range of future missions.
Mars is the nearest target. Two discoveries over the summer reinforced its potential for hosting life—a possible reservoir of briny water that lies beneath its ice cap and organic material preserved in 3-billion-year-old mudstones at Gale Crater, where NASA’s Curiosity rover is exploring. Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and its enormous subsurface ocean is another perennial favorite. It will be visited by the orbiting Europa Clipper mission next decade, and plans are in the works for a lander sometime afterward. Finally, there is Saturn’s tiny geyser-spewing moon Enceladus—spacecraft could fly through a spout and investigate a sample from its global ocean in detail.
“We know where to look, and we know how to look,” Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, told legislators during a Senate subcommittee hearing on the search for life in August. “We have the technology to determine if life has evolved elsewhere in this solar system and can easily do so within the next few decades.”
Click here the full article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.