Definition of Life

Preliminary Steps
  Geological Survey
  Sample Collection

Present Life
  Spectroscopic Analysis
  Organic Analysis
  Biology Experiments

Past Life
  Thin Section
  Isotope Analysis


Experimental Design

Preliminary Steps: Sample Collection

It is clear from conditions on Mars that life would have great difficulty existing anywhere near the surface.  Intense ultraviolet radiation bombards the planet, and the superoxide ions generated by that radiation may penetrate several meters into the soil.  The average surface temperature and pressure lie below the triple point of water, so no liquid water can exist where the rocks and soils of Mars are exposed to the atmosphere.  Thus, simple excavation and the collection of cliffside samples cannot produce samples in which current life is likely to exist.  The only way to reach such samples is to dig deep beneath the surface, into the bedrock far from the atmosphere.

The Viking Mission did not find any conclusive evidence in favor of the hypothesis that life exists on Mars.  However, the only samples that the mission analyzed where taken from the surface.  It is now known that the highly oxidizing surface of Mars led to the false positive results, indicating the contradictory simultaneous result of showing signs of positive metabolism and yet showing no evidence of organic compounds.  In addition, it is known that any water that currently still exists on Mars is located underground.  Since life is possible only where there is or once was water, in order to successfully search for life, samples must be collected from underneath the surface.  This is the most physically challenging of all of the experiments, and take a significant amount of time.

In order to maximize the chances of finding life, four different sample collection mechanisms will be used.  The four methods we will be using are a drill, a cliffhanger rover, various LMRs (Little Martian Rovers), and the traditional techniques of human field geologists.

The drill will be used to obtain a core sample of the underground rock layers on Mars.  Such a core will enable us to study the present underground rock compositions, and give us clues to the recent geological past on Mars.

The cliffhanger is a small rover that will be deployed over some cliffs in the vicinity of our landing site.  It will traverse down the edge of the cliff, and will collect rock samples from various depths.

All of the astronauts will be trained in geology and biology in addition to their own specialties.  Two of the six astronauts will be highly trained field geologists and biologists.  They will go out on field excursions on the manned transportation rover, to explore the surface, and to collect samples.  They will deploy the drill and cliffhanger.  They will use their human intuition to collect samples, and decide which areas look interesting for further exploration.

Furthermore, we have designed several Little Martian Rovers (LMRs) that will be able to analyze a larger territory than the human explorers could on their own.  Each rover will carry an Alpha Proton X-Ray spectrometer, and some will carry in addition a Gas-Chromatograph / Mass Spectrometer and an IR Spectrometer.  These instruments 
will allow the rovers to analyze potential samples on the spot, without having to bring back samples to the laboratory.  The rovers will have an intelligent automated system that will be able to alert the human explorers if a potential site appears to be interesting, and should be analyzed further.


Detailed specifications for drilling mechanism.

Cliffhanger Rover
Detailed description of cliffhanger rover.

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Comments and questions to mission2004-students@mit.edu Last updated: 10 December, 2000