To solve mystery of life on Mars, we should drill, baby, drill

Red Planet's history can be found underground, not on surface


Interstellar drillers available for hire

Image credit: Flickr/Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives

The next rover mission to Mars, slated for 2020, will not look for current signs of life, NASA announced Tuesday as it released a 154-page document outline mission objectives.

As's Mike Wall writes, some "people may be disappointed that NASA's next Mars rover won't conduct a life-detection experiment." We all must cope with disappointment from time to time, but the space agency is making the right call here.

We've had machines exploring the Martian surface for a few decades now, yet we've found no definite signs of life. Given the brutal conditions on the planet -- thin atmosphere, high levels of radiation, extreme temperatures -- that's hardly a surprise.

"To go and look for simple organisms, or not-so-simple organisms, that are living within that toxic, harsh environment we just think is a foolish investment of the technology at this time," Brown University professor Jack Mustard, chairman of the 2020 rover mission's Science Definition Team (SDT), said Tuesday.

I think he's right. Further, if we broaden the mission to finding past signs of life, we have to change tactics. And that means not restricting ourselves to scanning the Martian surface.

On Earth, we learn about past civilizations in large part through archaeology. Our planet's history is found under the surface. So too would be the history of Mars.

Here's how SDT team member Lindy Elkins-Tanton put it on Tuesday (as reported by

"If we were only looking for what microbes could be found on the surface in this place right now, that's like a tiny snapshot of the history of Mars and the possibility of life," said Elkins-Tanton, director of the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. "But if we look back through the rock record, we're basically integrating over time and maximizing our chances of finding results."

Which is why I think we should be drilling on Mars. Unfortunately, at least for now, there appear to be no plans to enable the 2020 mission to drill. NASA hasn't even decided what instruments it will place on board, though a microscope to study surface objects may be on the list.

However, the European Space Agency is expected to launch a Mars rover (called ExoMars) in 2018 that will be outfitted with a drill that can go down more than 6 feet. It'll be fascinating to see what it turns up, but we'll have to wait at least five more years.

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