Will Curiosity Look for Life on Mars? Not Exactly…

Article written: 24 Jul , 2012
Updated: 6 Jan , 2016
by
Video

“Curiosity is not a life detection mission. We’re not actually looking for life and we don’t have the ability to detect life if it was there. What we are looking for is the ingredients of life.”
– John Grotzinger, MSL Project Scientist

And with these words this latest video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory begins, explaining what Curiosity’s goal will be once it arrives on Mars on August 5. There will be a lot of media coverage of the event and many news stories as the date approaches, and some of these will undoubtedly refer to Mars Science Laboratory as a “search for life on Mars” mission… but in reality the focus of MSL is a bit subtler than that (if no less exciting.)

But hey, one can always dream

Video: NASA/JPL

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22 Responses

  1. Peter O'Connor says

    another great job at spending a sh*tload of money beating around the bush. leave it up to those scciiiiientists. If i was in charge i would probably just boot that group of people to the lower ranks and then accelerate the more to-the-point crowd to decision making positions. can anyone really explain why they think its really awesome to still NOT search for life? why are they still fixated on precursers? and dont give me that “one step at a time” thing again. we are flying to mars for sh*ts sake! haha!

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      As I recently commented on this on a Viking post, I have a responsibility to respond.

      The problem with the rate of progress of this science program is precisely because there hasn’t been a “spending a sh*tload of money”. One could argue that Curiosity should have been cut up into smaller, smarter, faster missions – but then you need more money.

      We do look for habitability and how to assess it first. Energy: check (UV and so oxidants); liquid water: check (extinct freshwater, extant brines and possibly subsurface); organics and their preservation: in progress. The reason is because Viking showed that it is difficult to observe life.

      – If you want to observe fossils, the current state of technology is that you need paleontologists that assess a lot of geological formations to get to the fossil bearing ones.

      Possibly the follow up sample return missions that Curiosity prepares for could substitute, but they would have to be plentiful. I would assume in the tens or hundreds.

      That will be decades or centuries of work at the current economically constrained rate.

      – If you want to observe life, you could do the NASA way and look for individuals by the necessary metabolism. Viking showed how hard that is, since cells have a variety of metabolisms to cope with a variety of ecologies and since cells are fragile to environmental change.

      Or you could go about it as a microbiologist and look for populations by the necessary evolution. You could try to grow populations which can adapt to a somewhat similar environment as they are used to, which is painstaking work, and if you succeed you can start to assess what you’ve got.

      Again, I would think you need plentiful of missions, in the tens or hundreds.

      We do need to put a lot of work into this because there is no magic in science, no “presto!” and the answer will appear, no “money!” and the market will obey, no “weapons!” and the indigenous people will obey, no “nationalism!” and the world will obey.

      We are facing the unknown. If you think anything like a scientist it is exhilarating!

      • Peter O'Connor says

        and by the way, picking apart my grammar in order to cheapen my opinion is not really impressive.

      • Peter O'Connor says

        Im am excited for this mission, truly. I just wish they would say “We are looking for life on mars.” Its just my opinion

      • Peter O'Connor says

        and im beginning to understand that past life could be just as significant as present life. punctuation or not, profffessionals

      • tenstripe says

        If they were to have a camera, with say a little bit of an ability to magnify, they could find life while not actually looking for it. It doesn’t seem like a huge leap to say were looking for life. Perhaps, it’s just easier to not have to say we didn’t find any life.

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        As the MERs they have a microscope, and as the MERs I don’t think it goes down to the µm scale but is in the mm scale to be useful for mineralogy.

        A high magnification microscope would use up a lot of mass, energy (needs lots of light) and time (to search for high mag objects). You would need to develop a fixation procedure for the objects.

        The reason NASA is careful about saying that they aren’t looking for life is because they aren’t. Else it confuses and disappoints.

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        Where do I pick apart your grammar? Aren’t you responding to Jeff Boerst, as he explicitly discussed your language?

      • A $20 toys-r-us microscope could’ve answered this question. While a negative finding with a real microscope wouldn’t necessarily mean no life exists there, a positive finding would be pretty self evident (most likely). At any rate, I can’t believe they’ve never sent one there.

        As I give them credit for being very intelligent scientist, I can only conclude their reasons for not wanting to find a positive sign, stems from concerns that said positive sign would signal the end of the need for future missions. In other words if the end goal is to discover life there, and you discover life there, why keep going?

        While I think that is a shortsighted vision and/or concern (I think it would create the need for many more missions to find the diversity of life, locations of life, etc.) I think NASA is concerned that once life is positively identified, the American public will quickly bore of the subject and future funding would dry up. So, why sprint for the finish line when you can drag it out and get multiple missions, keep more people employed, and attain more overall scientific knowledge.

    • Member
      Jeff Boerst says


      scciiiiientists”… REALLY? Why say it like that? Aren’t they the people that are doing it all? Don’t you think that they would be the ones to know how to do it? Would you rather have a house painter or a construction worker team…? or perhaps politicians. Experts are experts and that’s why your opinion is a completely uninformed one, thus useless…

      PS: Learn to use capitol letters….

      • Peter O'Connor says

        just like you? thus thus capitol. these are happily related feelings that im displaying with honesty here, opinion generated from emotional energy. Im sure others share my disappointment to hear the leading scientists in our world saying ‘sorry, but we are not looking for life’

  2. Lord Haw-Haw. says

    The media are already chomping at the bit with over a week to go, pity the significant Planck Mission is receiving little media coverage these days.

  3. VFRMark says

    Oh dear…….How many billions was this mission again?

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      Irrelevant. This work needs to be done in order to assess extant or extinct life, as well as the research preparing for human visits Curiosity does.

      If anything, we have invested too little in what could potentially be large gains. The rate of the science program is nothing near the similar program on exoplanet astrobiology.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson says

    It is nice to see NASA necessarily proactive on avoiding confusion between unfounded public expectations and possible outcomes! Even if it is a tad late as Lord Haw-Haw notes, it isn’t too late as the significant reporting will peak at the landing.

    This message will have to be repeated as Curiosity gets into the mission and makes its first significant observations. But eventually I think the facts will stick.

  5. Enrique Ferreyra says

    At 2012 and cant send precise life detection in a rover ? or lie or silly…

    • Member
      Jeff Boerst says

      Not, “can’t” but instead it makes more sense not to as the places in which life may exist now are likely quite scant but as for the past when the entire planet was much likely much more habitable, PAST life sustaining environments in comparison abound. In other words, MUCH better odds in finding a place where there once WAS life than ones where there IS life NOW… More bang for the buck, as it were per science pay-off.

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      I go through the problems with life detection in my longish response to Peter O’Connor.

      TL;DR: we don’t know how to do “precise” life detection. To show that it isn’t a lie or silly, consider how hard it is to grow bacteria in the lab to study those! Only a few bacteria are thus amenable and then from familiar environments.

      I do propose one fast and not very precise test, which builds on what we now know of RNA/protein life. RNA seems, arguably as of yet, to be geochemically selected. Even our DNA cells utilize RNA, albeit if it was selected it was for anoxic conditions of early Earth.

      It would be a good idea to look for RNA monomers (habitability geochemistry) and heteropolymers (metabolism or metabolic type geochemistry) early in a research program that goes on for decades. This mission may do that, it _is_ looking for organics, albeit fossilized rather than extant biochemistry (RNA doesn’t preserve well, as it is easily hydrolyzed).

  6. Member
    Aqua4U says

    As the landing date approaches _my_ curiosity increases. i.e. NOW I’m getting excited! An earlier video released by NASA stated that it will take weeks, even months before the ‘real’ science begins. Systems checks and calibrations will take time as it is crucial to define the characteristics of the instruments with complete accuracy.

  7. Coacervate says

    Curiosity? NO! I dub thee the “Somewhat Nosey” Impossible to fail when you set the bar low enough eh Viking-nauts!

  8. I laughed when he pronounced “layers” so that it sounded like “lairs”. Yes, if we’ve found lairs on Mars then I would say we have evidence of life. 🙂

  9. Psh, i can’t really believe scientist today. They are the ones the cause deception to this modern-day world we are in right now. I believe in UFOs though. nayhahaha

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