When the Viking landers of the 1970s first began “sniffing” for Martian life, they caused quite a stir. One of their experiments found evidence that microscopic organisms were thriving in the soil. But a second experiment soon quashed that hope. It found no evidence of organic compounds — the chemical building blocks of life. Most mission scientists concluded that the evidence from the first experiment was caused by a simple chemical reaction in the soil, and that Mars was lifeless.
A new mission to Mars will make a much more detailed search for organics. It won’t search for life itself, but its findings could reveal whether conditions on Mars were ever conducive for life.
Mars Science Laboratory is the most ambitious mission to the Red Planet to date. It consists of a nuclear-powered rover that’s as big as a car. It’ll spend a full Mars year or longer roaming around a region that looks like it was once wet and warm.
Its suite of instruments includes a small chemical laboratory for analyzing samples of rock and soil scooped up by a robotic arm. The lab will search for organics and other elements that are essential for life, including water.
The rover will also look for minerals and microscopic structures that could have been created by living organisms — telling us whether the Red Planet might once have been green.
One thing scientists hope the rover won’t do is infect Mars with life from Earth. More about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011