SOLID Clues for Finding Life on Mars

Microbes have been found flourishing beneath the surface of the Atacama Desert. (Parro et al./CAB/SINC)


Researchers from the Center of Astrobiology (CAB) in Spain and the Catholic University of the North in Chile have found an “oasis” of microorganisms living two meters beneath the arid soil of the Atacama, proving that even on the driest place on Earth, life finds a way.

Chile’s Atacama Desert receives on average less than .01 cm (.004 inches) of rain per year. In some locations rain has not fallen for over 400 years. But even in this harsh environment there is moisture… just enough, at least, for rock salts and other compounds that can absorb any traces of water to support microbial life beneath the surface.

Using a device called SOLID (Signs Of LIfe Detection) developed by CAB, the researchers were able to identify the presence of microorganisms living on thin films of water within the salty subsurface soil.

Even the substrate itself is able to absorb moisture from the air, concentrating it into films only a few microns thick around the salt crystals. This gives the microorganisms everything they need to survive and flourish — two to three meters underground.

SOLID's array of life-detector modules. (CAB)

At that depth, there is no sunlight and no oxygen, but there is life.

And even when researchers dug to a depth of five meters (a little over 16 feet) and took samples back to a lab, they were able to not only locate microorganisms but also revive them with the addition of a little water.

Of course, the implications for finding life — or at least the remains of its past existence — on Mars is evident. Mars has been shown to have saline deposits in many regions, and the salt is what helps water remain liquid, longer.

“The high concentration of salt has a double effect: it absorbs water between the crystals and lowers the freezing point, so that they can have thin films of water (in brine) at temperatures several degrees below zero, up to minus 20 C,” said Victor Parro, researcher from the Center of Astrobiology (INTA-CSIC, Spain) and coordinator of the study. This is within the temperature range of many regions of Mars, and also anything located several meters below the surface would be well protected from UV radiation from the Sun.

“If there are similar microbes on Mars or remains in similar conditions to the ones we have found in Atacama, we could detect them with instruments like SOLID,” Parro said.

The development of a new version of the SOLID instrument is currently underway for ESA’s ExoMars program.

Read more here on the Science Codex article.

What might be found just a few feet under the surface of Mars? (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

ESA Issues Invitation To Russia To Partner ExoMars Mission

Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA photo by S. Corvaja


What’s new in the avenue of space exploration? Right now the European Space Agency (ESA) has issued a formal invitation to Russia to join the U.S.-European Mars exploration program in a last-ditch attempt to save the project from being cut in half, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said October 13th.

The appeal to Russia, which came in the form of a letter to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is likely ESA’s only hope of saving the full U.S.-European Mars exploration project, which Europe calls ExoMars, Dordain said in an interview. At this point in time, the agency is hoping for a solid answer by the beginning of 2012. This will allow for planning for a two-launch mission of the ExoMars program and lead to a full partnership between the Russian Space Agency and NASA. What’s more, this partnership could mean additional support for the U.S.-European program and even incorporate a Proton rocket launch carrying a jointly-build Mars telecommunications orbiter and an entry, descent and landing system in 2016.

By cutting NASA’s budget, the U.S. contribution to world-wide space programs looks bleak… even with the planned 2018 launch, aboard a NASA-provided Atlas 5 rocket, of the Euro-American Mars rover. This lack of funds hurts everyone – including ESA – dashing hopes of of purchasing its own Ariane 5 rocket for the 2016 mission. Even though NASA appears to be committed at this point, there’s always the uncertainty of the U.S. economic picture.

“At this point I am becoming a Doubting Thomas in that I believe only what I can see,” Dordain said. “But NASA has said nothing that would lead me to believe the 2018 mission is not going forward. At this point I have only two options: Keep the mission as we would like it by finding an additional partner, or reduce the mission.”

This doesn’t mean that ESA isn’t trying. Even by cutting the budget to a single-launch isn’t totally the answer. By making such drastic changes in the middle of an already planned scenario means changing tactics when design teams are already on a tight schedule. Cutting the budget also means cutting jobs – and that’s a problem in its own right. At this point, ESA is even willing to release nations from their commitments to keep the program, with modifications, intact.

Dordain said his approach to Roscosmos is not simply a request for an in-kind contribution of a Proton rocket for the 2016 launch. He said he would like Russia involved in ExoMars as a full third participant with NASA and ESA, and that the Russian role could include provision of experiments. “This could end up being an even grander mission than it would have with a full Russian participation,” Dordain said. “It’s not simply a matter of asking the Russians, ‘Please provide us a launcher.’”

Dordain briefed ESA’s ruling council on the ExoMars situation October 13 and will give an update at the council’s mid-December meeting. The current ExoMars contract for the 2016 mission, which had already been extended while ESA waited for a NASA commitment that never came, runs through December and can be extended to January, Dordain said.

It will be a waiting game from here. With luck, the Russians will answer by January 2012 and NASA will have a clearer picture of its own financial responsibilities by February 2012. Let’s hope the ExoMars Mission doesn’t have to pay the price.

Original Story Source: Space News Release.

ESA’s ExoMars Mission in Jeopardy

NASA has stated that it cannot provide one of the Atlas rockets required to launch the ExoMars mission that it has partnered with ESA on. Image Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency’s “ExoMars” mission is under threat of cancellation. NASA and ESA heads will meet on Monday, Oct. 3 to decide how much more can be cut from the rapidly slimming mission. This meeting comes on the heels of NASA’s latest round of cuts – which means that the U.S. space agency cannot provide ESA with the Atlas V rocket that was slated to launch part of the mission.

ESA still might be able to keep ExoMars going if it can acquire a Proton rocket under the trade system that the agency is working to negotiate with Russia. Barring that? ExoMars will more-than-likely be cancelled. ESA had been hoping to send a diverse science package to the red planet. ExoMars is currently comprised of a communications relay system, descent and landing modules and a rover that is similar in design to the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity which have been operating on Mars for the past seven years.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was originally set to launch in 2016, now its future is uncertain. Image Credit: ESA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain are scheduled to meet in Cape Town, South Africa, during the International Astronautical Congress. During this meeting they are set to discuss one of two options that are left for their joint Mars expedition. The first is a single 2018 launch that will include a NASA-ESA rover and communications package. The second will be to try and maintain, despite the issues with the launch vehicle, the planned 2016 launch.

If a rocket can somehow be procured and the current schedule maintained, ExoMars would be a two launch affair with the Atlas V launching one of the mission’s components and another launch vehicle transporting the remainder. If the mission is saved, but scaled back further, only a single launch would take place in 2018. The Proton rocket scenario appears to be a last-ditch effort to salvage the program at this time. The final deciding factor as to whether-or-not ESA can save the program, to some degree, in its current configuration – depends on ESA obtaining a rocket to replace the Atlas V which NASA says it can no longer provide.

NASA had originally stated that it would provide two Atlas V rockets for the mission, the space agency has taken at least one of these off off the table recently. Photo Credit: ULA

ESA has estimated that either way, the mission will cost them the same 850 million euros ($1.36 billion) that it has already garnered from the nations that comprise the European Union. This is largely due to the fact that ESA has already spent the money to procure the materials and services needed for the orbiter component of the mission.
The primary issue that has continued to threaten mission is the poor state of the economy – both in the U.S. and Europe.

ExoMars started out as a rover and a separate ground station, and was originally set to launch in 2011 on a Soyuz Fregat rocket. In 2009 ESA signed into the Mars Joint Exploration Initiative with NASA. This agreement with NASA both pushed back the launch of the mission considerably and started ExoMars down the path to where it currently finds itself.

ExoMars has been changed repeatedly since its inception and now it is facing possible cancellation. Image Credits: ESA