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NASA's nuclear Mars tank gets improved cooker mod

Hungry robot to make soup of tenacious alien lifeforms

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

NASA's nuclear-powered robot laser tank, which the agency plans to land on Mars in 2012, will now be enhanced with a new automated lab experiment intended to discover evidence of life on the red planet. It's inventor seems confident that life - or anyway evidence of life in the past - is there to be found.

"Mars was a lot different 3½ billion years ago. It was more like Earth with liquid water," says NASA space boffin Jennifer Eigenbrode. "Maybe life existed back then. Maybe it has persisted, which is possible given the fact that we've found life in every extreme environment here on Earth. If life existed on Mars, maybe it adapted very much like life adapted here."

The space agency has long planned to send its "Mars Science Laboratory" (aka "Curiosity") super-rover vehicle to carry on the good work carried out in recent years by the existing, solar-powered "Spirit" and "Opportunity" planet-prowlers. It had once been hoped that MSL/Curiosity might land on Mars last year, but the date has since been put back.

The machine is expected to be able to analyse Martian dirt and rocks in more detail than the solar-powered rovers already there and move about with greater freedom, due to the larger amount of power available from its nuclear power source. It already included a complicated robotic chemical lab for analysing soil samples, the so-called Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) unit.

The SAM auto-lab features a pyrolytic oven and 74 teeny vials which can receive soil and rock samples scooped or drilled by the rover's robotic arm. The idea is that tiny lifeforms, having survived the terrible aeons of drought and airlessness since the red planet's lush wet past, will at last be baked to death by the Earthling robotank in order to discover their secrets. But it seems that mere baking isn't sufficient, in Eigenbrode's view, to sniff out the large organic molecules which could point to life on Mars. Proper scientific cookery, it seems, requires the use of ingredients and mixing as well.

Thus, after a good deal of testing and elephantine deliberations among the NASA hierarchy, it has now been decided that two of the 74 vials will be prefilled with a concoction of Eigenbrode's recommendation called tetramethylammonium hydroxide in methanol (TMAH). This, when heated with a sample, will give much more info on possibly life-related molecules.

Obviously, Eigenbrode's over beyond the moon about it.

"When I began working on my concept in early 2009, I thought it might be suitable for a future Mars mission, perhaps in 2016," she gushes. "I never thought that it would fly so soon on SAM. I believe we have really enhanced the capabilities of SAM should it find organic material. What I really want now is to find macromolecules on Mars."

"The range of organic molecules that SAM can detect has been expanded with no hardware modifications," adds NASA Martian robo-lab bigwig Paul Mahaffy, approvingly.

There's more from NASA here, including explicit pics of Eigenbrode clad in rubber gloves, wielding syringe and cookery jar. ®

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