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Mars NASA Space Science

NASA's Instrument For Detecting Life On Mars 88

Roland Piquepaille writes "With the financial help of NASA, American and European researchers have developed a new sensor to check for life on Mars. It should also be able to determine if traces of life's molecular building blocks have been produced by anything that was once alive. The device has been tested in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It should be part of the science payload for the ExoMars rover planned for launch in 2013."
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NASA's Instrument For Detecting Life On Mars

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  • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Sunday March 11, 2007 @09:08PM (#18311886) Journal
    so we can take turns strolling it through the marketing department to detect if life was ever there... oh wait, that would be 'intelligent life'

    never mind
  • by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Sunday March 11, 2007 @09:10PM (#18311900)
    Many years ago ETI magazine has a circuit for a UK sunlight detector The output was claimed to go to 5 volts if sunshine was likely in the UK. If you looked at the circuit carefully, it was just a dead short that could only ever produce 0 volts.

    This device was also claimed to work as a Sahara rain detector.

    Perhaps NASA could use one as a Life On Mars detector too.

  • We know a lot about chemistry here on Earth but I think we make a lot of assumptions about what is considered proof of life or liquid water. Unless we see cells dividing under a microscope we won't know anything for sure.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 )
      We know a lot about chemistry here on Earth but I think we make a lot of assumptions about what is considered proof of life or liquid water. Unless we see cells dividing under a microscope we won't know anything for sure.

      Based on the past record, I tend to agree. Mars keeps surprising us. Viking showed that soil chemistry makes life-detection difficult. Then questions popped up about Opportunity's seemingly strong "lake" evidence. And don't forget the "iron worms" in the Mars meteorite.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by cyclop ( 780354 )

      Yes, but you have to bet. And TFA refers mostly to aminoacids, and IMHO it is a good bet. Non-biogenic aminoacids are known to form in meteorites and are among the most common organic molecules that build up in prebiotic conditions. Aminoacid chirality is a strong indicator of life: having to deal with both chiral forms of a molecule would require to have a set of enzymes for each enantiomer (A non-specific enzyme wouldn't probably work, in particular for building a polymer like proteins or DNA: ordered str

  • by Mogster ( 459037 ) on Sunday March 11, 2007 @09:23PM (#18311960)

    The European Space Agency plans for the ExoMars rover to grind samples of Martian soil to fine powder and deliver them to a suite of analytical instruments, including Urey, that will search for signs of life. Each sample will be a spoonful of material dug from underground by a robotic drill.
    Meanwhile beneath the surface of Mars...

    "This is an emergency broadcast by the MBC. The city of Xrg'kht is being evacuted due to a strange mechanical object that has appeared from above. Citizens in it's path are being sucked into it and ground into dust. We urge everyone not to panic and quickly make your way to the outskirts of the city where you will be transported to safety. Message repeats... This is an ..."
    • Meanwhile beneath the surface of Mars..

      I think they should go looking for the Bunny [space.com] which hopped through the Opportunity landing site all those years ago.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by AndroidCat ( 229562 )

      No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few xen even considered the possibility of life on other planets and yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Mars with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.
  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Sunday March 11, 2007 @09:24PM (#18311972) Homepage Journal

    The cruise phase and orbiter operations sound quite a bit like Cassini, so I have a good feeling about that. But the Europeans have never landed a vehicle on Mars. The Russians pulled it off once or twice but NASA is the only organisation which could deliver a payload to the surface with any certanty.

    I would be happier to see the science payload come from the ESA, and the vehicle from NASA. Seems a lot safer that way.

    • by SeaDour ( 704727 ) on Sunday March 11, 2007 @09:45PM (#18312058) Homepage
      You're absolutely right, NASA has never [cnn.com] screwed up a Mars probe mission. Ever. [cnn.com]
      • Mars is a bit further away than the local Chemist Shop. It's extremely difficult to get to Mars and much harder yet to land on it safely. NASA still has the best record at pulling off an nearly impossible task. If it wasn't for the shuttle program NASA has an excellent record. Name another country or agency with half it's accomplishments. Only the Russian program is in their league and they still haven't landed a person on the moon let alone done it repeatedly without loosing anyone inflight. NASA has had i
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by c6gunner ( 950153 )
        Congratulations, you managed to miss the point entirely! That deffinitely took talent.

        Let me put it this way; who would you trust with a multi-million dollar space mission:

        a) An organization which, through the process of trial and error, has landed several vehicles on Mars.

        or

        b) The kid next door with his scrap paper and crayons, yelling "WELP, I HAVEN'T FAILED YET!!".
          • What about it? I'm sure you've heard the phrase "close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades". It's especially apt when you're thinking about spending millions of dollars on a project.

            Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the ESA can't do the job, I'm just saying they don't have the experience or track record to make me comfortable. I'm also saying that pointing to past NASA mistakes is foolish, because failure is part of every testing process. And if YOU were the one fronting the money for the pro
            • If I was fronting the money, then yes, I'd choose NASA -- but that's coming from me as an American citizen and someone who's spent some time working there. That said, if I was in Europe funding a scientific mission, I'd want the ESA to launch it. Virtually all funds for science missions come from governments, and I doubt that a German government grant office would be thrilled to see money being sent off to improve NASA's launch capability while cutting ESA's launch services out of the picture.

              There IS a l
            • Yes, ok, but that's a non-argument, because you could say that of anything.

              Then NASA shouldn't have built probes or send humans into space in the 60ies, because their track-record wasn't any good neither. It were the Russians back then which had the experience, so if they followed your reasoning, they should have had the russians do the job, and Nasa should have provided something they were better in, during that time...say, computers.

              You can't have a comfortable track record, if you never try out the track
              • The question is, "what are your priorities". If the people putting this thing together think it's worth risking mission success in order to give the ESA more experience, then certainly they should have the ESA do the mission. If, on the other hand, landing a package on mars is the most important aspect of the mission, they should go with NASA. It's all about priorities. And the rest of your argument is totally inapplicable, simply because you're seeing things in my comments that simply aren't there.
                • "The question is, "what are your priorities". If the people putting this thing together think it's worth risking mission success in order to give the ESA more experience, then certainly they should have the ESA do the mission. If, on the other hand, landing a package on mars is the most important aspect of the mission, they should go with NASA."

                  Obviously, it's a part of both. One should be careful to not make a false dillema out of it (it's OR NASA and succeeding, OR ESA and gaining more experience). I woul
    • Well there's a first time for everything....
    • by denoir ( 960304 )

      But the Europeans have never landed a vehicle on Mars.
      Nonsense! Beagle 2 [wikipedia.org]..um..landed on Mars. It just took a long vacation. European labour regulations, you know.
  • So, (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 11, 2007 @09:40PM (#18312038)
    Do we now know whether there was life in the Atacama Desert in Chile?
  • Does it test for carbon-based life only? Or does it have the capability to test silicon-based life? Ideally, it should test for both. I believe it was either Ray Bradbury or Arthur Clarke who wrote about a silicon-based lifeform on Mars.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Silicon-based life was considered by science fiction writers at one point because of the obvious chemical similarities between silicon and carbon, but it turns out that silicon is just enough unlike carbon that silicon-based life could never be a direct approximation of carbon-based life. In other words, the chemical similarities between carbon and silicon aren't enough to make silicon-based life any more feasible than life based around some other element.

      Which isn't to say that life couldn't be based on n
    • Or does it have the capability to test silicon-based life? Ideally, it should test for both.

      While Silicon and Carbon can form similar chemical bonds and similar compounds, it just isn't going to be a 1-to-1 relationship. Carbon Dioxide is a gas in most Earth-like conditions (i.e. when water is a liquid). Silicon Dioxide = sand, rocks, glass, etc. It's possible there are other mixtures of molecules that could result in chemical life, but we can't build a detector for something we can't define in the fir

    • Well...considering that we have a COPPER-based lifeform on our own PLANET...the Octopus... *shrugs* Isn't scientific arrogance wonderful? :)
      • Octopus is copper-based??? That's news to me. I thought all life on Earth was carbon-based. Thanks for this piece of info. I should say am surprised.
        Then NASA needs to send a life-detector that is capable of detecting multiple-variants of life forms...
    • by cyclop ( 780354 )

      The problems with silicon based life are:

      * Silicon chains are more unstable than carbon chains.

      * AFAIK, there are no known complex prebiotic precursors for a potential silicon based life (I admit research on it is surely more scarce, however)

      * Most importantly, we don't know what to look for in the case of it.

      So it's a nice theory, albeit chemically more improbable than carbon-based life, but we don't have the slightest idea on how silicon-based life could look like chemically, so chemical tests for it

  • NASA's Instrument For Detecting Life On Mars:

    a calculator.

    let's see... temperatures reaching minus 180 degrees Centigrade...
    absolutely zero water... but plenty of frozen carbon dioxide!

    that totals up to 0 life, excluding the now-dead microbes carried over from Nasa equipment (if you really must count it)

    So seriously, what's next, a new device to measure the IQ of president Bush?
    • Re:Heh (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Sunday March 11, 2007 @10:38PM (#18312270) Homepage Journal

      that totals up to 0 life

      Actually Mars is a lot like Antarctica. The air temperature is sometimes above zero C, but mostly below.

      Never the less, life survives there. At one stage one of the experiments which flew to mars on Viking was tried out in Antarctia and failed to detect life.

      • Actually Mars is a lot like Antarctica.

        ...except for being totally arid (no, really, there's a lot more water in even the dry deserts of Antarctica than anywhere on Mars - on the surface anyway); and the atmospheric pressure is rather lower, being about 0.1% of that in Antarctica; and of course the lack of a magnetosphere and atmosphere means that surface has been steadily cooked by high-energy cosmic rays and solar irradiation. Oh yeah and the gravity's 2/3 the value on Earth. And if you're in Antarctica,you now more than 100ms (as the packe

        • by mahmud ( 254877 )
          There are even some crackpots who want to try to set up some sort of permanent manned presence there - the poor, deluded fools... go figure!

          You gotta be joking or trolling! If not, than what the hell are you doing on Slashdot?
          • Not at all, I've been on Slashdot for years (since before user accounts in fact), but I disagree with the general consensus on a couple of things that are a big deal to Slashdot. One is the usefulness, practicality, and probability of manned spaceflight (in particular, ideas about colonisation of space as if it's the new Wild West). There's a ton a stuff on here I'm not interested in at all, but that's fine, i just don't read stories about gaming... but I'm very, very interested in astronomy and planetary
            • by mahmud ( 254877 )
              Why do you think that the chance of permanent Mars base is zero? What do you propose instead? Space habitats? Colonizing asteroids? Or are you saying that we are just gonna hang around on the Earth for a while and then die?
              • >Why do you think that the chance of permanent Mars base is zero?

                In a nutshell, it's entirely unsustainable. It could never be self-supporting. Thus it would never be more than a very very expensive prestige project.

                >What do you propose instead?

                Why should there be any instead? > Space habitats? Colonizing asteroids? Or are you saying that we are just gonna hang around on the Earth for a while and then die? > The latter, of course. What makes you think homo sapiens is not subject to the

    • So seriously, what's next, a new device to measure the IQ of president Bush?
      Already did that. Found a number that's even closer to zero than zero itself.
  • by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Sunday March 11, 2007 @10:37PM (#18312268) Homepage
    Why don't we just send David Bowie?
  • Deserves More (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DumbSwede ( 521261 ) <slashdotbin@hotmail.com> on Sunday March 11, 2007 @11:03PM (#18312450) Homepage Journal
    $750,000 seems to be trying to get by on the cheep to me. I recently read an article labeling a $1,000,000 grant to the Allen Telescope Array as "pork barrel." Never mind most of its funds come from private sources, the fact that some (not all) of its science is for SETI makes it a target.

    Religious types would explain its all about not wasting sources because it is a self-evidently pointless search. I would have to suspect there is an element of not-wanting-to-know because ignorance will make religious dogma true in some magical way.

    It costs hundreds of millions to send these crafts to Mars. I would rate the possibility of finding life or past life on Mars as one of the most important things they could do, and thus deserving of a reasonably share of the cost in a mission, say 10%-20%, not the less than point-2-percent I reckon this is. Granted there are probably other life related experiments, but I'm betting they are feeble in scope in compared to the original Viking missions. They may be more effective with improved technology and decades to review Vikings' data, but they are pitifully small compared to what we could be doing I'll wager. Our little shop that works on Government contracts nets 5 million a year for a staff of about 70 people, and that's every year. I almost feel guilty getting a pay check when this kind of science appears to be starving.
    • by cyclop ( 780354 )

      Religious types would explain its all about not wasting sources because it is a self-evidently pointless search. I would have to suspect there is an element of not-wanting-to-know because ignorance will make religious dogma true in some magical way.

      Huh? I'm blissfully unaware of religious opposition to searching extraterrestrial life (probably because I am not religious). What kind of opposition there is? On what grounds? Does it come from creationist wackos or also from other camps? I am really intere

  • If you really want an accurate and super-sensitive way for detecting life, just send a mother to Mars. If there is life, she will seek it out and nag the hell out of it.

    All NASA would have to do is wait for the screams of microbes begging to be taken back to Earth and locked in a secure, solitary chamber for study.

    Unfortunately, locking myself in a secure, solitary bedroom as a means of escaping the Vulcan Death Nag has been somewhat of a failure.

    I wish the microbes better luck.
  • It took me a while to look it up on youtube, but we've had this before, no? So what's new in the new device?
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=ryd9udbh6X8 [youtube.com]
  • When does this nonsens stop? Based on so little evidence this Mars life search, is rather a WILL to believe there is life. There are better candidates for life in our solar system then Mars, take jupiter's moons. But the fact is it is easier to make people think that life is from mars. As well 50% of american (might even be higher) believe in little green men. Rather a mass pscyhose of watching to much startrek and other SiFi, funded by Nasa (to get their budget in return) Oh men, get a life.... (here on
  • a new sensor to check for life on Mars.

    It's a giant silver robot and you stop it from vaporizing all life on Mars by saying Klaatu, barada, nickto.

    Who said searching for extraterrestrial life was complicated?

  • Check out the data they've gathered. They've already detected sailors fighting in a dance hall, and they believe they've found evidence of a lawman beating up the wrong guy.

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