Toaster oven-sized boffin box bound for Mars to search for life

NASA hitches a ride on ESA's red planet trundle wagon

NASA tech inspects MOMA
NASA engineer Ryan Wilkinson inspects MOMA during thermal vacuum testing at Goddard (pic: NASA)

A team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center gathered last week to bid farewell to a mass spectrometer as it began its journey to the red planet via an assembly plant in Italy.

The instrument is a key component of a toaster oven-sized lab, called the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA), which will detect evidence of complex organic compounds in samples retrieved from deep below the surface of Mars.

While NASA has had considerable success with Mars exploration (as well as a few spectacular mishaps), missions such as the long-lived Opportunity Rover, which had endured 5,086 Sols and 45.16km as of 15 May, have focused mainly on geology and water. ESA's ExoMars 2020 rover will be hunting for signs of life.

ESA's bot features a drill capable of retrieving samples from up to two metres below the desolate surface of Mars, where organic material could have survived, protected from radiation and the harsh conditions above.

The drill will transport the samples to MOMA, held within the rover, where the miniaturised lab will hunt for molecules containing the likes of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and so on. All normally associated with life, although boffins admit that non-biological processes could produce the same stuff.

To build a case for the evidence of life, MOMA is capable of detecting the chirality (or "handedness") of molecules. A molecule that is primarily of the left or right-handed variety is regarded as a biosignature for life since non-biological processes tend to produce an equal mix of the varieties.

ESA has already had a crack at looking for life on Mars with the ambitious Beagle 2 lander, which came within a gnat's whisker of firing up its Planetary Underground Tool (PLUTO) – also known as "the mole", which would have drilled to a depth of 1.5m to retrieve samples before being winched back onto the lander.

Sadly, boffins theorise that the lander failed to open as planned following touchdown and died without managing to send a signal back to Earth.

NASA's Viking landers, sent to Mars over 40 years ago, also had a go at spotting life and while chemical activity was found in the soil the stationary robots scraped from the surface, signs of biological activity proved elusive. Hence the plans to drill to the world beneath.

Russia is providing the launcher, in the form of a Proton rocket, and a surface platform from where the six-wheeled rover, which weighs about a third of NASA's plutonium-powered rock-botherer Curiosity, will trundle to the surface.

Russia's recent attempts to get to Mars have ended in failure, with 1996's Mars 96 mission, which included an orbiter and lander, failing to make it beyond earth orbit and 2011's Phobos-Grunt mission also making an unplanned return to Earth thanks to a programming error.

If all goes to plan this time around, NASA's mass spectrometer will commence its hunt for signs of life on the red planet in 2021. ®

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