NASA's $300 million plan to send 6 probes hunting Martians by 2018

Contributed by
Dec 17, 2012

A few months ago, we heard that NASA's determined to launch some kind of new Mars mission by 2018 regardless of budget cuts. Now a proposed plan for just such a mission has been revealed, and it's one of the most ambitious searches for Martian life yet.

The Biological Oxidant and Life Detection (BOLD) Mission calls for six 130-pound pyramid-shaped "penetrator" probes to impact the surface of Mars at six different points, embedding themselves at least four inches into the Martian soil to search for life beneath the Red Planet's irradiated surface. If approved, BOLD will be the first Mars mission dedicated to solely to a life search since NASA's Viking landers in 1975, and proponents argue that this time there's a much greater chance of conclusive results.

"After Viking, it has been quite a long time now," said Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University, the proposal leader for the BOLD mission. "We have so much more information about Mars, about the environment, and our technology has further developed—we have such better instruments—that it's really now time to try to get straight to the answer."

The BOLD team opted to take a multiple-probe approach to the mission because it's possible that not every probe would survive the impact into the Martian surface. Once embedded, each probe would conduct a variety of different tests on Martian soil, including releasing microbial food and searching for evidence that it's being eaten, and attempting to stain any living cells with fluorescent dye. Each probe would also be equipped with a microscopic imager to capture photos of cells and fossils that may appear.

"If you want to look for life, you want to have a microscope," Schulze-Makuch said. "Let's face it—people won't accept the proof of life until they see bactera in a microscope, and the bacteria's kind of waving back, or at least wiggling."

Schulze-Makuch also noted that the mission would be much cheaper than any attempt to return samples back from the Martian surface. And these days, cheaper is better if NASA's hoping to get anything done.

"I do think actually that NASA would be, exactly right now, very interested," Schulze-Makuch said. "Before we send a human mission to Mars, we really want to know, as well as we can, whether there is microbial life on Mars."