26 Apr 2012

CREDIT: NASA
CREDIT: NASA

There is a BOLD new plan for detecting signs of microbial life on Mars.  The nickname is BOLD, which stands for Biological Oxidant and Life Detection Initiative, would be a follow-up to the 1976 Mars Viking life-detection experiments.  This comes after recent headlines that suggested the possibility, at least mathematically, that the Viking crafts had discovered life contrary to the original conclusion.

The general consensus was that the Viking experiments only discovered geological activity with the samples, rather than biology. 

"We have much better technology that we could use," says BOLD lead scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, with Washington State University.  He elaborates, "Our idea is to make a relatively cheap mission and go more directly to characterize and solve the big question about the soil properties on Mars and life detection."

To help figure out the life-detection mystery, Schulze-Makuch and his colleagues would fly a set of six pyramid-shaped probes that would crash land, pointy end down, so they embed themselves four to eight inches into the soil.  The craft would be run by battery and automatically run six experiments to chemically analyze the soil and detect life.  One of the instruments includes a sensor that can detect a single molecule of DNA or other nucleotide.

In order to communicate results back to Earth, they would use an existing Mars orbiter.  The entire mission cost no more than $300 million, a small fraction of a traditional NASA mission.  By sending many of these probes they increase the chances of a landing success.

There are already signs that the Obama administration plans on bailing out of a European-led initiative called ExoMars which would have returned soil samples from Mars.  The project would have taken three missions and is scheduled to start in 2016.

This is where the BOLD mission would be able to get results the public has been wanting answers to, for much less and could be ready to go by 2018.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

Missions such as these can inspire the world.  If we detect the presence of life, no matter what the form on a location outside of Earth, it will completely change how we look at our place in the universe.  It's unfortunate that government does not value science like they once did, particularly that of the benefits of NASA.  If the United States drops out of the exoMars program then this will be another unfortunate step backwards.  Science and space frontiers can inspire, but they can also help the growth of an economy in the long run.  Governments are stuck in short term expectations with programs such as these.  It is good that we have alternative ideas such as BOLD, to attempt to get the results we seek without the red tape getting in the way.  But ultimately we must continue to expand outward into the solar system with bigger and broader missions with humans in control as robots and probes can only do so much.  Humans are much better at fossil collection than a robot or probe due to terrain conditions and other factors.

See Also:  The Need for Ambitious Thinking

Source:  news.discovery.com


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