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Mars Device to Ease Adverse Wine Effects
Enobytes Wine blog

NASA's Wine Sniffer
Astrobiology Magazine

Europe eyes Mars landing sites
BBC News

Device Created for 'Red Wine Headache'
Oakland Tribune

NASA Data Helps Avoid Red Wine Headaches,
CBS News

Anybody Out There? Bay Area scientists scour Earth and skies for clues to an ultimate question.
July 4, 2007
East Bay Express

There's No Place Like Home? Not so fast, Dorothy! It looks as if Earth may not be so special after all.
July 11, 2007
East Bay Express

2013  Exomars Mission under Critical Review by ESA
May 21, 2007
BBC News

NASA-Backed Team Developing Sensor to Check for Life on Mars
February 26, 2007

UC device will seek life signs on Mars Sensitive hand-sized instrument will try to detect amino acids
January 17, 2007
San Francisco Chronicle

UREY Instrument in the News
October 2, 2006
Chemistry & Industry

Mineral Time Capsules on Mars?
May 2006

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Successfully Inserts into Orbit Around Mars
March 10, 2006

Bacteria under Greenland ice may preview what scientists find under Mars' surface
December 14, 2005
UCBerkeley News

Pasteur/ExoMars Mission Approved
Published December 6, 2005
ESA News

Life Detection Instrument Passes Key Test On Road To Mars
June 30, 2005
Science Daily

AGU Urges Stronger Support for Earth and Space Science
Published: June 7, 2005
The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News

Life on Mars? Could Be, but How Will They Tell?
Published: March 29, 2005
© New York Times

Mars needs amino acids!
Published: March, 2005
Nature Methods

Development and evaluation of a microdevice for amino acid detection and analysis on Mars
Published January 25, 2005

Finding Martian Molecules
Published: January 18, 2005
OBSERVATORY © New York Times

Researchers Develop New Machine for Detecting
Signs of Life on Mars

online: January 18, 2005

Chip sniffs out the building blocks of life
online: January 18, 2005

Mars Life
online: January 17, 2005

Mars "Life Detector" Built
Can identify amino acids on future robotic missions
online: January 17, 2005

Searching for Life on Mars
Miniature laboratory will look for biological fingerprints.
5 May 2004
© Daily Californian, 2004

'Life chip' ready for 2009 Mars missions
Miniature laboratory will look for biological fingerprints.
18 March 2004
© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd

Combing Mars for clues to early life on Earth / As traces of water are found on Red Planet, scientists thirst for breakthroughs
Looking for life on Mars
Monday, March 8, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle

Ideas & Trends: A Cosmic Ego Trip;
Be Careful What You Look For on Mars

January 11, 2004
©2004 New York Times

UC device will seek life signs on Mars Sensitive hand-sized instrument will try to detect amino acids

David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Scientists and engineers at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley are developing a pocket-sized instrument that will travel to Mars aboard a European spacecraft and prove whether life exists -- or ever did -- on the planet's red sands.

The mission's instrument will mark the most sophisticated effort yet to find specialized organic chemicals that only exist in living organisms and never anywhere else in the solar system, the scientists say.

The instrument, so small it can fit in the palm of a hand, will fly on the European Space Agency's ExoMars spacecraft that will land in the planet's frosty north polar region, drill 6 feet below the surface and dig up tiny samples of dirt for analysis. The mission is to be launched in 2013.

"And if there's life there, we'll detect it," said Jeffrey Bada, a chemistry professor at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. "We've been working on this for 15 years, and it will be so sensitive that we should detect chemicals in parts per billion -- amino acids in a single bacterium, if there are any."

The UC instrument is being developed for NASA. It is called the Urey Mars Organic and Oxygen Detector and is named for the late Harold Urey, a famed physical chemist whose graduate student, Stanley Miller, in 1953 devised the first experiment that turned simple inorganic chemicals into amino acids, the so-called "building blocks of life."

Bada is the leader of the development team and his principal colleague is Richard Mathies, a UC Berkeley chemistry professor.

The scientists in the Urey experiment don't necessarily expect to find living Martian bacteria, but they do hope to detect the amino acids that are a key ingredient of life.

The molecules of amino acids have a twisted shape -- something like a corkscrew -- and they come in left- or right-handed forms, known as chirality. Nonliving organic compounds have mixtures of both forms, but in living organisms a single type of "handedness" -- either left or right -- dominates in each amino acid.

On Earth, left-handed amino acids dominate in all living things, but in life on Mars the amino acids might go either way, Bada said. Their property will be the definitive clue revealing whether Martian life is real, either now or in the past, he said.

Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry in the Netherlands are also involved in developing the Urey experiment's components.

This will be only the second trip to Mars with the explicit mission to search for life.

NASA's two Viking spacecraft landed there 30 years ago and carried miniature laboratories to search hard for signs of life, but technology built into those instruments was not advanced enough to do anything but reveal some exotic chemistry.

The two robot rovers still scouting the Martian surface three years after they landed have found plenty of evidence that water once filled lakes and seas on the planet, but they aren't seeking life. And although the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Observer has detected water that may still be running from underground streams onto the surface, it is not equipped to analyze chemical compounds on the surface.

E-mail David Perlman at

Page A - 3
©2007 San Francisco Chronicle

Urey Instrument in the News

Spotting aliens is easy in the movies. They have acid for blood and burst out of stomachs, or they can make bikes fly and have glowing fingers. In reality, detecting alien life is more complex.

For a start, at least in the short term, any attempts to detect signs of extraterrestrial life will focus on Mars, which means looking for microbes. Furthermore, any microbial life that may once have existed on Mars could now be extinct, which means trying to detect fossilised traces of life in Martian rocks. Finally, if life developed independently on Mars then it might well utilise a whole range of different organic molecules from Earth-based life; so how will we know what to look for? ... rest of the article (PDF)

Mineral Time Capsule on Mars?

See this press coverage on our recent Geology manuscript (link to Published Articles) by Andrew Aubrey, H. James Cleaves, John H. Chalmers, Alison Skelley, Richard A. Mathies, Frank J. Grunthaner, Pascale Ehrenfreund and Jeffrey L. Bada:

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Successfully Inserts into Orbit Around Mars

On March 10, 2006 the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) successfully inserted into orbit around Mars after a 7-month flight from earth.  After aerobraking for ~ 6 months, it will perform 2-5 years of Mars observation. It will also be used as a critical telecommunications link for subsequent landed missions including MSL in 2009 and ExoMars in 2011.
For more information

Bacteria under Greenland ice may preview what scientists find under Mars' surface

Published December 14, 2005
Link to article

Pasteur/ExoMars Mission Approved

In a two-day meeting of ESA's ruling Council on December 6, 2005 in Berlin, the Ministers responsible for space in the European Space Agency's 17 Member States and Canada have agreed to support the European Space Exploration programme Aurora, comprising its first Exploration mission ExoMars.

Our entire team from Berkeley, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Leiden University has been selected to participate in the Pasteur/ExoMars Mission. The linked pages show how our instrument now called UREY is being developed for the ExoMars Mission.
For more information

Life Detection Instrument Passes Key Test On Road To Mars
June 30, 2005
Science Daily

BERKELEY – The dry, dusty, treeless expanse of Chile's Atacama Desert is the most lifeless spot on the face of the Earth, and that's why Alison Skelley and Richard Mathies joined a team of NASA scientists there earlier this month.

The University of California, Berkeley, scientists knew that if the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA) they'd built could detect life in that crusty, arid land, then it would have a good chance some day of detecting life on the planet Mars.

In a place that hadn't seen a blade of grass or a bug for ages, and contending with dust and temperature extremes that left her either freezing or sweating, Skelley ran 340tests that proved the instrument could unambiguously detect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. More importantly, she and Mathies were able to detect the preference of Earth's amino acids for left-handedness over right-handedness. This "homochirality" is a hallmark of life that Mathies thinks is a critical test that must be done on Mars.

"We feel that measuring homochirality - a prevalence of one type of handedness over another - would be absolute proof of life," said Mathies, professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and Skelley's research advisor. "We've shown on Earth, in the most Mars-like environment available, that this instrument is a thousand times better at detecting biomarkers than any instrument put on Mars before."

The instrument has been chosen to fly aboard the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission, now scheduled to launch in 2011. The MOA will be integrated with the Mars Organic Detector, which is being assembled by scientists directed by Frank Grunthaner at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena together with Jeff Bada's group at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Skelley, a graduate student who has been working on amino acid detection with Mathies for five years and on the portable MOA analyzer for the past two years, is hoping to remain with the project as it goes through miniaturization and improvements at JPL over the next seven years in preparation for its long-range mission. In fact, she and Mathies hope she's the one looking at MOA data when it's finally radioed back from the Red Planet.

"When I first started this project, I had seen photos of the Martian surface and possible signs of water, but the existence of liquid water was speculative, and people thought I was crazy to be working on an experiment to detect life on Mars," Skelley said. "I feel vindicated now, thanks to the work of NASA and others that shows there used to be running liquid water on the surface of Mars."

"The connection between water and life has been made very strongly, and we think there is a good chance there is or was some life form on Mars," Mathies said. "Thanks to Alison's work, we're now in the right position at the right time to do the right experiment to find life on Mars."

Mathies said that his experiment is the only one proposed for ExoMars or the United States' own Mars mission - NASA's roving, robotic Mars Science Laboratory mission - that could unambiguously find signs of life. The experiment uses state-of-the-art capillary electrophoresis arrays, novel micro-valve systems and portable instrument designs pioneered in Mathies' lab to look for homochirality in amino acids. These microarrays with microfluidic channels are 100 to 1,000 times more sensitive for amino acid detection than the original life detection instrument flown on the Viking Landers in the 1970s.

The Atacama Desert was selected by NASA scientists as one of the key spots to test instruments destined for Mars, primarily because of its oxidizing, acidic soil, which is similar to the rusty red oxidized iron surface of Mars. Skelley and colleagues Pascale Ehrenfreund, professor of astrochemistry at Leiden University in The Netherlands, and JPL scientist Frank Grunthaner visited the desert last year, but were not able to test the complete, integrated analyzer.

This year, Skelley, Mathies and other team members carried the complete analyzers in three large cases to Chile by plane - in itself a test of the ruggedness of the equipment - and trucked them to the barren Yunguy field station, essentially a ramshackle building at a deserted crossroads. With a noisy Honda generator providing power, they set up their experiments and, with six other colleagues, tested the integrated subcritical water extractor together with the MOA on samples from popular test sites such as the "Rock Garden" and the "Soil Pit."

One thing they learned is that with low environmental levels of organic compounds, as is likely to be the case on Mars, the microfluidic channels in the capillary disks don't get clogged as readily as they do when used to test samples in Berkeley with its high bioorganic levels. That means they'll need fewer channels on the instrument that travels to Mars, and the scanner used to read out the data needn't be as elaborate. This translates into a cheaper and easier way to build instruments, but more importantly, an instrument that is smaller and uses less power.

With the success of this crucial field test, Skelley and Mathies are eager to get to work on a prototype of their instrument that would fit in the allowed space within the ExoMars spacecraft.

"I'm much more optimistic that we could detect life on Mars, if it's there," Mathies said.

AGU Urges Stronger Support for Earth and Space Science
June 7, 2005
The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News

"NASA is being asked to do more than it can with the resources provided." That is a conclusion of a new position statement issued by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) on the future of Earth and space science at NASA. The statement cautions that Earth and space science may be declining in priority at NASA and are being "threatened by new financial demands placed on NASA by the return to human space flight using the space shuttle, finishing the space station, and launching the Moon-Mars initiatives." AGU calls for "the U.S. Administration, Congress, and NASA to continue their commitment to innovative Earth and space science programs."

The AGU, a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics, held a press conference on June 7 to release the statement, "NASA: Earth and Space Sciences at Risk." The chair of the AGU panel that developed the statement, Eric Barron of the Pennsylvania State University, stated that planned reductions to NASA's Earth and space science programs could hinder future scientific advances and the societal benefits that flow from them, harming U.S. leadership and the "tremendous investment" the nation has put into these fields. He cited numerous benefits from Earth and space science research, from the "immediately practical," such as improved weather forecasting and long-term climate predictions, to the investigation of "compelling" questions about the evolution of the universe and the possibility of life on other planets. "NASA has a great deal on its plate," he explained, and "our concern is that the Earth and space sciences are becoming a lower priority."

In its FY 2006 budget request, the Bush Administration combined NASA's Earth and space science programs into a single Science Mission directorate, and requested for it $5.5 billion, a reduction of $51 million, or 1.0 percent, from the FY 2005 funding level for science. The FY 2006 budget documents show that NASA proposes to spend slightly more than $30 billion over the years FY 2006 to FY 2010 for the Science Missions directorate. According to Barron, this is a reduction of more than $1 billion compared to previous projections for the same time period.

Barron expressed particular concern over reductions to the small, "proposal-driven" Earth System Pathfinder and Explorer missions. What is being lost, he warned, is "the innovative aspects" of science. AGU's view, Barron said, is that the government needs to protect and support "the ability to innovate." He added, "if you want to add something more to NASA's plate, let's find the money for it," and not shift funding from "something that's every day proving its value to society." AGU President John Orcutt of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reiterated the concern that NASA's budget does not contain sufficient funding to adequately support its Earth and space science programs and, at the same time, the Moon-Mars initiative. He acknowledged, however, that cuts to NASA priorities such as space station assembly and the Moon-Mars initiative would probably not result in funding being shifted back to Earth and space sciences.

Asked whether the situation would be equally dire if the funding cuts and delays were only temporary, Barron and Orcutt both warned that lack of opportunities in the near-term could deter students from pursuing careers in the Earth and space sciences. Barron also expressed concern about the small number of missions in the planning stages and the amount of time needed to develop new missions once funding was restored.

The full text of the statement follows, and can also be found at the following URL:

"NASA: Earth and Space Sciences at Risk

"AGU calls for the U.S. Administration, Congress, and NASA to continue their commitment to innovative Earth and space science programs. This commitment has placed the U.S. in an international leadership position. It enables environmental stewardship, promotes economic vitality, engages the next generation of scientists and engineers, protects life and property, and fosters exploration. It is, however, threatened by new financial demands placed on NASA by the return to human space flight using the space shuttle, finishing the space station, and launching the Moon-Mars initiative.

"For over a quarter century, NASA and its international partners have pioneered extraordinary scientific advances in understanding the Earth, the solar system, and the universe. NASA's science programs and observations from space have greatly expanded our knowledge of the chemistry, biology, and physics of the ocean, the land, and the atmosphere. Scientific exploration by NASA has transformed our understanding of the universe.

"There are indications that Earth and space sciences have become a lower priority at NASA. NASA's proposed 2006 budget reduces science research by $1.2 billion over the next five years, a dramatic change. These cuts are almost equally distributed between the Earth and space sciences. They will decimate effective programs designed to promote innovation, research and development, and frequent, flexible access to space. For example, several inexpensive Earth System Pathfinder missions and Explorer class satellites for the space sciences have been eliminated or subjected to prolonged delays. These losses will degrade our weather forecasting, search and rescue, and life and property protection capabilities. They affect our ability to understand natural hazards, map changes in Earth's surface, forecast space weather, understand Earth-Sun connections, and explore the solar system.

"NASA is being asked to do more than it can with the resources provided. Shifting financial resources from science threatens vital investments and capabilities that have taken decades and tens of billions of tax dollars to build. AGU believes that the nation must capitalize on the extraordinary scientific advances of the last few decades and asks the U.S. Administration, Congress, and NASA to renew their commitment to Earth and space science research.

"Adopted by Council May 2005"
Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
The American Institute of Physics

Life on Mars? Could Be, but How Will They Tell?
March 29,2005
©2004 New York Times

The landscape looked lifeless. But satellite images from orbit identified geological formations containing minerals that microbes sometimes like to nestle in, and scientists dispatched a small rover to look at the rocks up close.

Fluorescent dyes sprayed on the ground lit up, proclaiming the presence of proteins and DNA. The rover also detected chlorophyll, the energy-producing molecule of plants.

And so scientists discovered life in Chile's Atacama Desert.

Life there, one of the driest places on Earth, is sparse, but no one was surprised to find it. And they weren't really hunting life on Earth. The exercise last summer was practice for the techniques scientists hope to use in the future on Mars, where the question of life remains intriguingly open.

"You've got to go look," said Dr. Alan S. Waggoner, director of the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a participant in the NASA-sponsored project. "I'd give it a 50-50 shot that you could find it somewhere underground. But then that's a guess."

He is not alone. In an informal poll taken last month at a conference in the Netherlands, three-quarters of 250 scientists working on the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission said they believed Mars once possessed conditions hospitable to life. One quarter believe it still does.

Planetary scientists have long thought that early in its history Mars may have been more like Earth, warm and wet, a place where life could have taken hold. But then the climate turned cold and dry and has remained cold and dry for several billion years. For many, the presumption was that Martian life, if any ever existed, died away long ago.

Over the past year, the notion that life not only arose on Mars but persists today has become more plausible with reports of methane gas currently floating in its atmosphere. The two most likely sources are geothermal chemical reactions or bacteria, and because ultraviolet light breaks down methane within a few centuries, any detectable methane must have been put there recently.

Another possibility is that the methane comes from the remains of long dead organisms trapped underground as oil or coal-like deposits and transformed to methane by the heat of meteor impacts.

"The evidence is teasing us," said Dr. Everett K. Gibson Jr. of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, a member of the research team that claimed in 1996 to have found organic molecules, bacterialike fossils and other evidence of life in a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica.

Meanwhile, biologists have in recent years discovered life on Earth in places they would not have expected, adapted to the harshest of conditions: in rocks miles underground, at the sunless bottoms of oceans, in extremely acidic waters.

Dr. Gibson said he believed that there was life on early Mars and that it could still be there. "Life tries to hang on," he said. "Life tries to do everything it can to survive."

Carbon-based life requires three essential ingredients - carbon, liquid water and energy - and all appear to be present on Mars. Carbon dioxide makes up most of Mars' thin atmosphere, and some Mars rocks, including the one that Dr. Gibson examined, are known to contain carbon.

Liquid water is no longer present at the surface, but it once was. NASA's Mars rover Opportunity found minerals, particularly an iron mineral known as jarosite, that require prolonged steeping in water to form. Images from spacecraft in orbit find signs that liquid water has burst onto the surface in geologically recent times.

Volcanic heat could provide the energy. The European Space Agency this month released photographs of Mars' north pole that showed signs of ash from eruptions.

At the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference outside Houston this month, Lindsey S. Link, a graduate student at the University of Colorado, presented calculations showing that even at temperatures not far above freezing, chemical reactions between water and minerals in the basaltic lavas of Martian bedrock could also generate energy for life to thrive on.

"It turns out there's quite a bit," Ms. Link said. "I think we're learning life doesn't need a lot more than rock and water, if it can get energy from these reactions."

But if life exists, how to find it?

Of the spacecraft that have flown to Mars, only NASA's two Viking landers in the 1970's carried biology experiments, and they found no signs of life. The surface of Mars is cold, waterless, almost airless and bombarded by deadly radiation.

Any surviving life would most likely have migrated underground, where dirt above provides shielding and heat below warms ice to water. Few expect that Martian evolution would have progressed beyond primitive microbes.

The challenge thus is to identify life that is microscopic, lives far underground and may not resemble life on Earth.

For their life-detection system, Dr. Waggoner and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon developed fluorescent dyes that light up when they hook onto DNA or protein molecules. The dyes are designed to work even if Martian DNA and proteins do not quite come in the same forms as Earth ones.

For a test, they chose the Atacama Desert, a popular stand-in for Mars that stretches for 600 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. The wetter parts get half an inch of rain a year. The dry parts get nothing more than wisps.

The scientists brought along a nine-foot-long, 400-pound solar-powered rover named Zoë, named after the Greek word for life.

To simulate a real mission, a second team of scientists led by Dr. Nathalie A. Cabrol, a planetary geologist at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., gathered in Pittsburgh. The scientists there acted as mission control, reviewing images and data collected by Zoë and deciding what it should do next.

While Zoë possessed the intelligence to roam at speeds up to 2 miles an hour, its operations were not completely autonomous. For one, Dr. Waggoner and others had to follow the rover around and squirt the fluorescent dyes onto the rocks as needed when the scientists in Pittsburgh found a rock that they thought merited closer analysis.

Once the dyes soaked in, a xenon lamp on Zoë's underside flashed. If DNA, proteins or chlorophyll, which is naturally fluorescent, were present, they would glow, their presence captured by a digital camera and radioed back to Pittsburgh.

After Zoë finished its work, the trailing scientists collected rock and soil samples to verify the rover's examination. In moister areas along the coast, Zoë successfully found lichens on rocks. In a drier area, Zoë reported DNA and proteins on seemingly barren rocks. Later, scientists were able to cultivate bacteria from those rocks.

Another set of trials this fall will add dyes for carbohydrates and lipids, molecules found in the walls of cells.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have taken a different approach in developing a suite of instruments they call the Mars Organic Analyzer.

The first instrument isolates organic, carbon-containing molecules. "That doesn't tell you about life," said Dr. Richard A. Mathies, a professor of chemistry at Berkeley. "That tells you about organic molecules."

The organic molecules are dissolved in fluid and transferred to a small chemistry laboratory-on-a-microchip that separates the molecules by type, including identifying amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The presence of amino acids is not unambiguous evidence for life; they can even form in chemical reactions in outer space.

One final test checks for a biological calling card known as chirality. Amino acids come in two versions, mirror images of each other. Chemical reactions that produce amino acids generally produce both mirror forms equally. But life, on Earth at least, uses one form exclusively. Thus, if the instrument found more of one version than the other, "That's a very strong argument those molecules are produced by a biological process," Dr. Mathies said.

The amino acid detector was successfully tested in the Atacama last year. After the Mars rover Opportunity discovered jarosite at Meridiani Planum, the researchers took their instruments to Panoche Valley, Calif., and showed that they could pick out small amounts of amino acids trapped in the jarosite deposits there.

"We did all that in the field on these samples," Dr. Mathies said. "We showed the whole thing worked all the way through."

To figure out how to get below the surface and what might be found there, Dr. Carol R. Stoker of NASA Ames has been drilling at Rio Tinto, a river in Spain that also resembles Mars, although in different ways compared with Atacama.

The Rio Tinto waters are highly acidic and stained red with dissolved iron, an environment that may be similar to Mars' Meridiani Planum when it was wet.

At the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Dr. Stoker reported that she and her colleagues had found vibrant communities of methane-producing microbes in drilling cores from those waters up to 500 feet deep.

"If sulfides and liquid water are both present in the Martian subsurface," Dr. Stoker said, "then resources are available to support a subsurface biosphere analogous to that at Rio Tinto and methane could be a product of such a biosphere."

This year, Dr. Stoker will also run a simulation of a Mars mission, with scientists running a drill rig at Rio Tinto remotely.

None of these projects will make it to Mars anytime soon. NASA has not put any instruments on Mars to detect life since the two Viking landers three decades ago, and no life-detection experiments will be on its next three missions: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which launches in August, the Phoenix Lander in 2007 and Mars Science Laboratory in 2009.

Those missions do include instruments that will better describe the geological and chemical surroundings, which may give a better idea whether life is likely and where to look.

Reconnaissance Orbiter has ground-penetrating radar that may reveal underground water. Phoenix will repeat Viking's experiments looking for organic molecules, at higher temperatures, which may free them from the soil. Mars Science Laboratory has an even more sophisticated suite of instruments.

The European Space Agency has announced ExoMars, a rover that will carry Dr. Mathies's instruments and other life-detection experiments. The mission, originally aimed for 2009 and then delayed to 2011, probably will not fly until sometime later, said Dr. Gerhard Schwehm, head of E.S.A.'s planetary missions division.

For any mission to Mars, weight, cost and power set limits on what instruments can be used. Definitive answers may have to wait for a Mars sample return mission, when pieces of Martian rock and dirt are brought back to Earth and examined by scientists using the full complement of tools in their laboratories. That will probably be at least a decade from now.


Mars needs amino acids!
By Michael Eisenstein
March 2005
Nature Methods

In the wake of renewed interest in the possibility of life on Mars, researchers have developed a chip-based system capable of highly sensitive detection of organic molecules.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Viking Mars mission was both a historic landmark and a crushing disappointment. It generated striking images and offered invaluable geological and meteorological insights, but soil sample analyses revealed an apparent lack of organic molecules, suggesting an absence of life—little and green or otherwise. And so the quest for interplanetary life went on hiatus, or at least kept a low profile. "You kind of stayed in the closet," explains Berkeley chemist Richard Mathies, "[and] didn't really tell anybody you were doing exobiology, because you were afraid you were going to get branded as a complete crank!"

New inspiration came after analysis of Antarctica's Allen Hills 84001 meteorite yielded tantalizing geological data that helped revive hopes of finding martian life. More recently, the Spirit and Opportunity missions provided compelling, if not indisputable, evidence that the martian surface contained liquid water—at some point. Finally, various studies suggest that the Viking lander's analytical equipment lacked the sensitivity to quantify truly scarce molecules, and that soil samples were taken too close to the planet's surface, where organic molecules would have been thoroughly degraded by the highly oxidizing conditions (Benner et al., 2000).

In 2009 or 2011, the European Space Agency (ESA) intends to embark on the ExoMars mobile rover mission, which will include a closer search for signs of life. To this end, Mathies and colleagues from several other institutions have developed the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA), an innovative microfluidics-based capillary electophoresis system for the detection of amino acids—a prototype for the detector to be included in the ExoMars lander (Skelley et al., 2005).

Earth's nearest equivalent to the martian surface lies in an inhospitable patch of Chile's Atacama desert, where the soil is highly oxidized and even bacterial life is extremely scarce. Levels of organic molecules there fall below the limits of the Viking system's detection capabilities—but MOA passed with flying colors, detecting traces of several amino acids. "The system we're running," says Mathies, "has low part-per-billion—to even tens-of-parts-per-trillion—sensitivity for these organic amines and amino acids. That's a sensitivity that's roughly 1,000 to 10,000 times better than Viking." The team is now scaling up to develop MOA systems capable of processing hundreds of samples.

Mathies believes the ESA and NASA now recognize the potential of new biological and chemical techniques, and beyond finding life on Mars, suggests that as a proving ground for microfluidics, MOA may also find new life in chemistry research: "The real trend is that this stuff is no longer just gee-whiz lab-on-a-chip stuff; it's starting to go mainstream... I see this as the start of a revolution in the way lots of people do chemistry."


Skelley, A.M. et al. Development and evaluation of a microdevice for amino acid biomarker detection and analysis on Mars. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 102, 1041–1046 (2005).

Benner, S.A. et al. The missing organic molecules on Mars. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 97, 2425–2430 (2000).

© 2005 Nature publishing Group

Finding Martian Molecules
Published: January 18, 2005

The two Viking landers that reached Mars in 1976 carried instruments for analyzing the planet's soil for the presence of organic molecules. For their time, these shoe box-size biochemistry laboratories were marvels of miniaturization and engineering. But they didn't resolve the issue of whether there is or was life on Mars.

In retrospect, they may not have been sensitive enough. The instruments didn't find any significant organic molecules, but given what else was discovered about Mars on those missions, that was hardly surprising. The Martian surface was found to be so reactive that most organic molecules that did exist would be rapidly destroyed. So only instruments with much greater sensitivity than those on the landers would be able to detect the extremely small concentrations of molecules that might remain.

Now, Dr. Richard A. Mathies of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues have built such an instrument, designed to detect amino acids. Called the Mars Organic Analyzer and described in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it uses a technique called capillary electrophoresis to separate the molecules and laser-stimulated fluorescence to detect them. It accomplishes all this with microfluidic technology: most of the work is done on a tiny wafer filled with microscopic channels, valves and pumps.

The analyzer was tested on soil from the Atacama Desert in Chile, an extremely dry region that is considered among the most Mars-like places on Earth, and in the Panoche Valley in central California, which has a lot of jarosite, a mineral also found on Mars (and a sign that water once existed there).

In the Chilean samples, amino acids were detected at concentrations as low as 10 parts per billion, while the concentrations in the California samples were even lower -- as low as 70 parts per trillion. The researchers hope to build an analyzer that will be carried aboard the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission, to be launched in 2009.

© Copyright, NY Times (2005).

Development and evaluation of a microdevice for amino acid detection and analysis on Mars

Published in PNAS January 25, 2005
Link to abstract

Researchers Develop New Machine for
Detecting Signs of Life on Mars
By Sarah Graham
January 18, 2005


Scientists continue to explore Mars for elusive signs of life. A new tool should help in the hunt. The Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA) can detect and identify amino acids with 1,000 times greater sensitivity than the Viking probes that landed on the Red Planet in 1976.

Alison M. Skelley of the University of California at Berkeley and her colleagues designed the briefcase-size MOA, which includes laser spectroscopy, tiny pumps, valves and fluid channels. In laboratory samples, the new system detected amino acids present in parts per trillion. Analysis of soil samples from the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on Earth, identified acids such as valine and glycine, along with glutamic and aspartic acid in concentrations ranging from 10 to 600 parts per billion. The researchers then took the MOA to Panoche Valley, Calif., to test samples of the mineral jarosite, patches of which were discovered on Mars last year by the rover Opportunity. The device passed its field test, detecting amino acids at 70 parts per trillion.

The MOA is being developed for the European Space Agency's (ESA) ExoMars mission, scheduled to launch in 2009. "ExoMars will be ESA's first mission to carry an exobiology payload, a set of instruments specifically designed to search for life," says Jorge Vago, ExoMars study scientist. "Our intention is to define a multi-instrument package that will be able to fulfill a number of key tasks."


Chip sniffs out the building blocks of life
By Kelly Young
Published: January 18, 2005

A small glass chip that could one day help sniff out the building blocks of life on Mars has successfully detected sparse organic compounds in barren, Mars-like environments on Earth.

In preparation for future robotic missions, scientists tested the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA) with samples collected from two deserts thought to closely match conditions on the Red Planet - the Atacama Desert in Chile and the Panoche Valley in California, US.

The Atacama Desert can go years without rain and its high elevation means it soaks up lots of ultraviolet light. This makes for a highly oxidising environment, similar to that found on Mars.

"It is essentially the most barren place we can find, so if we can detect signs of life - present or past - in that region, then at least we are certain of the ability of our instrumentation to perform with the same sensitivity on Mars," says Alison Skelley, at the University of California, Berkeley, US, who led the study.

The briefcase-sized instrument, housing the four-layer glass microdevice, successfully detected amino acids in the range of 10 to 500 parts per billion from soil samples collected in the desert.

Parts per trillion

In the Panoche Valley, researchers coupled the MOA with another instrument called the Mars Organic Detector (MOD), which is how it would be used on Mars. Together, the instruments found amino acids in the range of 70 parts per trillion to 100 parts per billion in jarosite, a mineral that has already been detected on Mars.

The research is important to help scientists work out whether life could ultimately survive on Mars. Life in human terms requires liquid water, organic molecules and a source of energy.

In 1976, NASA's Viking landers carried instruments that checked for organic molecules on Mars, but failed to find anything. Scientists now suspect that this was because of the planet's highly oxidising environment, which would change any organic molecules into a form that would have been undetectable by Viking's instruments.

The MOA takes into account this highly oxidising environment and is 1000 times more sensitive than Viking's instruments.

Dying to detect

A probe carrying the device would scoop up a sample of soil and place it into the MOD, which would heat up the sample to 500°C. This heat should cause any organic molecules in the rock to turn to gas, which could then be condensed onto a cold, dye-covered surface.

The dye attaches to a particular reactive group, present on all amino acids, so if any of these molecules are present they become labelled. Any fluorescence seen by the detector indicates the presence of an amino acid. At this stage the MOA takes over. Through a series of tiny pumps and channels, the analyser can separate out different amino acids.

The MOA still has several engineering challenges ahead, say its designers. It needs to be fully automated and able to handle 80 to 100 soil samples.

It is being considered for a European Space Agency orbiter/rover mission, called ExoMars, which is scheduled for launch in 2009 or 2011. But it will not be used by NASA for its next big landing mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, set for a 2009 launch.

Instead of the Mars Organic Analyzer, the roving Mars Science Laboratory will carry the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite to detect organic compounds. It uses a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer - an advanced version of the device flown on the Viking landers. In addition, a laser will vaporise soil so its molecular composition can be analysed.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol 102, p 1041)


Mars Life

by Jack Penland
Published: January 17, 2005

To find life on Mars, you must either bring a sample back to a laboratory or find a way to take a lab to Mars. As this ScienCentral News video reports, researchers have found a way to shrink down a lab so it can go to Mars.

Are We Alone?

The clues continue to tantalize and inspire the imagination. Did life exist on Mars? Could simple bacteria still be there only a few feet deep in the soil? To find out for sure, scientists are either going to have to bring a sample of Martian soil here, or take a biology lab there.

Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have found a way to build what amounts to a biology lab on a glass chip about the size of a compact disc.

University of California, Berkeley chemistry professor Richard Mathies likes the idea of sending a mini-lab there because, "I think sample return is going to take a very long time and it's going to be very expensive." Mathies has a personal reason as well, noting, "I'd actually like to make these measurements in my lifetime."

The chip, officially called the "Mars Organic Analyzer," will analyze soil for the chemical signs of life on the surface and hopefully, even a few inches deep into the Martian soil. It would be one of many devices to ride on the next generation of rovers, following the lead of Spirit and Opportunity, who have explored Mars for more than a year.

Mathies describes the chip, designed and built by graduate student Allison Skelley, as, "made up of four different layers—two layers of glass, a layer of plastic and another layer of glass that's used to control the valves and vents and reactors in the system."

There are lots of what scientists call "biomarkers" that could offer clues to life. Mathies wants to use the chip to search for amino acids because they, "are a key component on Earth as we know it and there are very good arguments that it should be a ubiquitous element in life on other planets."

The Mars Organic Analyzer

But, just finding amino acids is not enough. Scientists would look for a crucial characteristic found in the amino acids that make up life on Earth; they're all "chiral" molecules, which means they are not superimposable with their mirror images—like left and right hands. Amino acids can be made by processes other than life, but those all have left and right-handed versions of each other. A characteristic found in the 20 amino acids making up life on Earth is that they are all left-handed.

Mathies says, "If, for example on Mars we discover that there was a very, very large excess of, say, right handed amino acids that would really be undeniable proof that there was a unique form of life present on Mars."

The analyzer, now planned for the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission set for 2009, will not be the first hunt for amino acids on Mars. NASA's Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s were controversial, but considered by most scientists as inconclusive.

But Mathies says the chip is a thousand times more sensitive than the method used by Viking, pointing out, "The technical capabilities that have been developed as a result of the biotechnology revolution over the past decade as well as the human genome project have dramatically enhanced our capabilities in making microanalysis systems."

Future trips will have an advantage Viking did not because rovers can both move and dig. Says Mathies, "If we can move to those spots and we can dig down and pull samples from those locations, then we have the wonderful possibility of actually finding some sort of life form on Mars."

This research appeared in the Online January 17 – 21, 2005 Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was funded by NASA.


Mars "Life Detector" Built
Can identify amino acids on future robotic missions

Betterhumans Staff
online: January 17, 2005

Credit: NASA
Return to the Red Planet: Future Mars rovers will seek signs of life using small, sophisticated devices

A compact "life detector" has been built for future missions to Mars.

Called the Mars Organic Analyzer, the briefcase-sized device reportedly has 1,000 times greater sensitivity than the 1976 Viking probes, which didn't detect organic molecules.

Created by Richard Mathies from the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues, the analyzer combines such things as laser spectroscopy with tiny pumps and channels.

It has been used to detect amino acids in extremely low concentrations.

Seeking such organic molecules is considered the next logical step in Mars exploration because the rovers on the planet right now are mainly looking for signs of water.

"Extraterrestrial life on Mars or elsewhere most likely requires three fundamental elements: liquid water, organic molecules capable of forming combinatorial polymers, and a redox energy source," the researchers write.

Briefcase-sized lab: The Mars Organic Analyzer

Mathies and colleagues have already tested their device on samples from the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on Earth and considered a good model for the surface of Mars.

They could detect amino acids down to a few parts per trillion, and found many amino acids used by Earth life in concentrations from 10 to 600 parts per billion.

On samples of the mineral jarosite from California, the analyzer found even lower concentrations of amino acids, which is considered important for use on Mars: An iron-sulphate mineral that only forms in the presence of liquid water, jarosite was discovered last year by the Mars explorer Opportunity.

The analyzer is reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (read abstract)


Searching for Life on Mars
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2004

In March, scientists at NASA concluded from evidence gathered by the two Mars Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, that the red planet probably did at one time have deposits of liquid water—suggesting the sustainability of past Martian life.

Meanwhile, UC Berkeley researchers, in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, are working on the next step in the search for past life: the presence of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—in Martian soil.

“There are two main ingredients that are required for development of life on Mars: water and organic molecules. We have already found evidence of water; now we need to find organic molecules such as amino acids.” said Berkeley professor of Chemistry and principle investigator Richard Mathies.

Mathies and his team have already received $2 million in grants from NASA to develop an instrument, dubbed the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA), which will potentially fit aboard NASA’s robotic rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, slated for launch in 2009. In addition the MOA may also be used aboard the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Mission, also slated for launch in 2009.

The MOA will incorporate state of the art technology, the same used in sequencing the human genome, to test for the presence and characteristics of amino acids in the soil.

More importantly, provided that amino acids are found in the soil, the MOA will then test for the handedness, or chirality, of the amino acids present. Testing for chirality would indicate whether or not the amino acids were made by past life forms.

All amino acids come in one of two 3-dimensional forms: left handed and right handed. A fundamental characteristic of life on Earth is that amino acids made via life are only left handed.

In space, however, amino acids can be spontaneously made through non-life processes. These non-life processes only produce racemic mixtures; that is, mixtures with equal amounts of left handed and right handed molecules.

“The implications of this device are huge,” said Alison Skelley, graduate student on the project, “if we go to Mars and find homochirality, an excess of one form of amino acid over the other, we will have very strong evidence of past or present life on Mars.”

The MOA, building off a precursor designed by Jeffrey Bada of Scripps known as the Mars Organic Detector or MOD, would first search for the presence of amino acids and then check for their handedness.

The MOD works by heating a sample of Martian soil to high temperatures, causing the organic material in the soil to vaporize into a tube which then cools the material onto a finger-like substrate. The substrate is coated with a dye that only attaches to amino acids. This then allows for detection of amino acids.

The second step then involves drawing the amino acids into a small tube to detemine what types of amino acids are present.

The Mathies team addition incorporates a glass micro-chip that tests for chirality of the molecules by driving them down a tube that separatesthe left and right handed amino acids.

The amino acids are separated by a molecule in the tube that impedes the movement of left handed molecules. The results will give an idea of the percentage of left and right amino acids.

The MOA, however, still has to undergo considerable engineering and field testing to account for size, weight, and energy consumption restrictions as well variable conditions on Mars.

In February Skelley traveled to the Atamaca Desert in Chile to see if the MOA could detect amino acids in harsh arid regions, similar to what would be expected on Mars.

“We are optimistic that our device will be able to handle whatever Mars throws at us.” said Skelley.

©2003 The Daily Californian
Berkeley, CA



'Life chip' ready for 2009 Mars missions
Miniature laboratory will look for biological fingerprints.
18 March 2004
© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2004


A miniature laboratory that can spot a tell-tale chemical signature of life is ready to be part of a 2009 Mars mission.

The device will look for amino acids, the molecular building blocks of proteins. "Amino acids are the best molecules to look for if you want to find evidence of life that existed a long time ago. Unlike DNA, they could last for tens of thousands of years on Mars without changing," says Alison Skelley, a chemist at University of California, Berkeley, who helped build the 'life chip'.

Amino acids come in mirror-image forms, like left and right hands. Normally, chemical reactions produce equal amounts of both. But biological processes on Earth use just the left-handed form, allowing proteins built from them to fold into useful shapes, such as a helix. Researchers assume that life elsewhere may be the same.

The chip will be able to detect the ratio of left- and right-handed forms in martian soil. Although some scientists argue that non-biological reactions driven by light could produce a skew in this ratio, Skelley says this would be a very localized effect. Finding the same ratios at different locations on the surface could only be the result of biology, says Richard Mathies, who presented the team's latest results at the Micro: Nano Interface conference in Glasgow, UK, this week.

The team, which includes Jeff Bada at the University of California at San Diego and Frank Grunthaner at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says it can detect amino acids in soil down to levels of a few parts per trillion.

Chips with everything

The chip shoves several pieces of lab equipment onto a slab just 10 cm across and 4 mm thick 1. "The same device normally covers a large table," says Skelley.

Once on Mars, a tiny oven in the set-up will heat a gram of soil to 500 ºC. Any water and other light molecules will evaporate first, followed by heavier biological molecules that condense onto a cold disc about the size of a coin. The disc is coated with a fluorescent dye, which lights up on contact with amino acids. Measuring the fluorescence indicates how many amino acid molecules are in the soil.

The compounds are then sent through tiny channels etched into the chip, where they travel at different rates depending on their weight and other properties. This separation process helps to identify the molecules.

Still in the chip, the compounds are mixed with a chemical that grabs onto left-handed amino acids, slowing them down. This separates the left- and right-handed molecules, allowing the device to tell if there is an excess of one form - the fingerprint of life. The whole process takes less than an hour.

The Viking landers looked for organic molecules using a different method back in 1976, but found nothing - possibly because their detectors were not sensitive enough. The Berkeley team says their chip is at least a thousand times more sensitive.

The ill-fated Beagle 2 expedition this year was due to look for life by measuring the weights of carbon atoms on Mars. Biological processes tend to use a lighter form of carbon to build molecules, so a change in the proportions of these atoms could be indicative of life. The NASA Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity were designed only to look for water, not for life.

Mathies hopes that a copy of the chip will make it onboard a NASA and a European Space Agency mission, both slated for a 2009 launch. The chip is part of a larger project designed to detect organics, which weighs nine kilograms - light enough for the NASA Mars mission, which plans to take a one-tonne lander to the planet's surface.


Skelley, A. M. & Mathies, R. A. J. Chromatography A. ,1021, 191 -199, doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2003.08.096 (2004). |Article|

© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2004



Combing Mars for clues to early life on Earth
As traces of water are found on Red Planet, scientists thirst for breakthroughs

David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor
Monday, March 8, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle

If water flooded Mars with lakes or briny oceans in the distant past, did life evolve there too?

Last week's announcement from NASA scientists of powerful evidence that water was once abundant on the planet's arid surface -- and that Mars was once "habitable" -- has renewed everyone's fantasies of Martian life.

Myths and legends and the fancies of fiction writers have long conjured up monsters, Martian maidens, and even entire civilizations on the Red Planet.

It was Giovanni Schiaparelli, the Italian astronomer, who first saw curious streaks he called canali on Mars in 1877. They appeared to crisscross the entire Martian surface. A beguiled public assumed he meant canals built by actual Martians.

Then the Boston Brahmin astronomer Percival Lowell, who created his own observatory in Phoenix, became convinced that the canals were actually feeding short-lived oases built by despairing Martians who were running out of water and doomed to extinction.

It was Orson Welles who panicked half of the United States in 1938 with his radio dramatization of invading Martians from H. G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds."

But when today's scientists begin looking in earnest for signs of past life on the Red Planet, they'll be searching for something a little more prosaic. Future NASA missions will be seeking evidence of organic chemicals; signs that amino acids, the building blocks of life on Earth, formed there, and perhaps even signs of primitive bacteria.

The evidence of plentiful water -- discovered in the bedrock of a Martian crater by the six-wheeled robotic rover named Opportunity -- excites scientists who hope that detecting signs of life long ago could answer profoundly puzzling questions about the origins and evolution of life on Earth.

When our planet first formed in the early solar system more than 4 billion years ago, it underwent furious meteorite bombardments.

Yet within only a few hundred million years -- about 3.8 billion years ago -- the fossil record reveals that living organisms much like bacteria had already evolved and were already clumping together to become the fossil masses called stromatolites in Australia.

But how did those masses of once living organisms emerge? What kinds of chemical molecules in some kind of watery soup could have ultimately acquired the ability to replicate, to develop RNA and DNA, and to order the construction of all the 20 amino acids that make up all the proteins for life?

"The early history of Mars and Earth are very similar," says Tori Hoehler, an oceanographer and microbiologist at NASA's Astrobiology Institute at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

"It's possible that torrential rains might have flooded the surface (of Mars) only briefly in the beginning. (But) if the water remained, Mars may have hosted life for some time -- most likely something like the bacteria we have here on Earth. And that life could have evolved fairly rapidly -- on the order of 100 (million) or 200 million years."

Hoehler studies the processes that could have yielded life beneath the surface of Mars or on any other rocky planet. That life might have included a class of ancient bacteria called methanogens that generate methane from carbon dioxide and water. Such bacteria live today on Earth, in the volcanic "black smokers" of deep undersea rifts, among other places.

One such primitive bacterium, called Pyrolobus fumarolii, thrives in environments hotter than twice the boiling point of water. Because it is the most heat-resistant of all known earthly microbes, scientists at the European Space Agency consider it (or something like it) a candidate for possible Martian subsurface life long ago.

At UC Berkeley, Jillian F. Banfield, a chemist and director of the astrobiology program, has isolated and deciphered the genes of a curious variety of microorganisms, including bacteria that thrive in deep wet caves without light, and oxidize iron and sulfur. These too are "interesting candidates" for the kinds of organisms that could once have emerged on Mars, Banfield says.

One great concern among scientists who study the origins and evolution of life on Earth is that all traces of the earliest chemical steps that led to the first self-replicating molecules have long vanished in the tumultuous upheavals that marked the first days of our planet.

Which is why the possibility of ancient life on Mars is so intriguing to many researchers.

"It would be very boring to find bacteria like E. coli (the bacterium that thrives in every human gut) on Mars," says Jeffrey Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

"My great hope is that we'll find some primitive life form there that preceded anything we know on Earth. It could mean that we would finally learn something about how prebiotic molecules and chemical evolution led to an RNA world that evolved into a DNA-protein world. That would be the most exciting possible way for us to learn how life got started on Earth."

One major clue would be to detect microscopic traces of unique kinds of amino acids on Mars, Bada said, "because the only way you could possibly get amino acids at all is from biology."

The structure of the 20 amino acids on Earth is like a spiral, with their strands of molecules twisting around each other in a left-handed direction, Bada said. If amino acids twisted the other way, they could not possibly be Earthly molecules.

"If we saw evidence of right-handed amino acids on Mars, they would give us unique proof that Martian life really has existed there -- or does exist, " he said.

A search for that kind of proof may well be part of a major NASA mission called the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled for launch in 2009. It will follow a 2007 mission, called Phoenix, that will land a spacecraft near the Martian North Pole and dig 3 feet into the surface to study how water has altered the chemistry of the soil and perhaps produced organic molecules there.

But the 1-ton roving Science Laboratory will be a true life-seeker. A team of scientists met at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena recently to plan the mission's details. Bada and Richard A. Mathies, a UC Berkeley chemistry professor, were at the meeting and proposed a novel way for detecting the telltale "right-handed" amino acids.

The device was developed by Mathies and Alison Skelley, a graduate student in his lab. Mathies calls it a "microfabricated lab on a chip," developed with a $2 million NASA grant and designed to fly on the 2009 mission.

The chip itself weighs a mere 100 grams -- about 3.5 ounces -- but the entire system weighs several pounds. Skelley tested parts of it two weeks ago in the intense heat of Chile's Atacama Desert, the driest spot on Earth, and everything went well, she said.

Then only last week, during experiments on the Marin Headlands, the entire system, chip and all, underwent its first field test. It detected left- handed amino acids with ease, Skelley said, and even found life on Earth -- a bug that crawled across the equipment.


E-mail David Perlman at

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle
Page A - 4


Ideas & Trends: A Cosmic Ego Trip;
Be Careful What You Look For on Mars

January 11, 2004

THE story of astronomy is one long, slow assault on our sense of self-importance. The ancients knew they were at the center of things. Their eyes told them that the sun and stars moved around them day and night, eternally circling their snug homes.

It took the abstractions of science to undo the obvious. Copernicus dislodged the Earth from its place of glory and put the Sun in the center. Before long, astronomers discovered that the Sun was commonplace and that our own brilliant galaxy, the Milky Way, was actually just one of billions of star parties. Recently, astronomers have proposed a new glue for the universe, dark energy. It is incontrovertibly real, they insist, but, so far, beyond human comprehension.

The record of cosmic insults, already staggering, could get worse if the current invasion of the red planet proves successful. While rocks and sand now hold center stage, the ultimate purpose of the work is to track water and what seems to be its nearly inevitable companion, life. Explorations of Mars -- relatively dry now but wet long ago, scientists believe -- are considered more likely to uncover fossils than extant forms.

Even the White House has caught extraterrestrial fever. This week, President Bush is expected to announce plans to set up a human colony on the moon and eventually to send Americans to Mars to redouble the American exploratory push.

Even if just one little Martian were to come to light, however small and ugly, old and desiccated, its discovery would have ramifications far beyond the scientific. It would suggest that we are not alone in the universe.

"Some eminent people say it will be terribly depressing, that we'll feel ignorant, and they predict a planet-wide inferiority complex," said Dr. Frank D. Drake, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a pioneer of the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

"My take is that it could have the opposite effect," he added. "It could motivate us to think that if we worked hard we could be as good as them, motivate us to make progress much more quickly than we are. I'm an optimist. It's more fun."

Even if the fragile ego of Homo sapiens never recovered, reality television shows would get wild new venues.

The current obsession with Mars draws on a revolution in the life sciences that began after two Viking landers in 1976 failed to uncover any hint of aliens. Biologists, exploring our own planet, discovered that life had succeeded in invading the most inhospitable environments, from super-hot vents at the bottom of the oceans to Arctic wastelands. In a big reversal, they concluded that the sun's energy powered only some terrestrial life and that much of it, including tons of microbe slime, lived on planetary heat and chemicals. Most life on Earth, some ventured, thrived invisibly in dark ecosystems.

Mars got sexy. Maybe the Viking landers missed the real story, experts theorized. Maybe the Martians were beneath the surface, dwelling in dark, moist ecosystems. "It's not crazy to ask if there are oases where life might still exist," said Dr. Andrew H. Knoll, a Harvard biologist who studies early life on Earth, and its possibility elsewhere.

The new invaders are testing this hypothesis, though in an incremental fashion that may take a decade to complete. The first, the European Mars Express, went into orbit last month bearing radar that will probe more than a mile beneath the surface, mapping aquifers, permafrost and underground rivers.

Just after New Year's, the American Spirit rover bounced to a successful landing in Gusev Crater, a giant scar that perhaps once held a lake; it is now preparing to probe Martian rocks. Its mechanical arm will bore into them to reach unweathered material, analyze their composition and peer at them with a microscope. There is a chance, though slim, that the wheeled robot could find evidence of life.

"It could be the microscopic imager might see something where you say, 'Hey, that looks familiar,"' Dr. Michael Meyer, the senior astrobiologist at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in an interview.

The Spirit rover, and its twin, Opportunity, which is scheduled to land later this month, cannot perform complex chemical or biological tests that could prove the presence of life. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration aims to tackle the hardest questions last, after years of geological spade work to see if Mars was, or still is, conducive to life. The robot geologists are to look mainly for traces of water, examine rocks, minerals and land forms for clues to the planet's watery past.

By 2009, NASA plans to launch the Mars Science Laboratory, a roving mobile explorer that will focus on some of the hard chemistry questions. It is to be nuclear powered, giving it the ability to roam over the forbidding Martian terrain for not just weeks or months but possibly years, vastly increasing its range.

The next step would come as early as 2011, when a lander explores the terrain and drills deep and fires back samples of Mars for study on Earth, letting scientists marshal their best instruments to the hunt for subtle life clues. NASA says this approach might involve the use of miniaturized tools to allow Mars landers to drill hundreds of meters deep into the ground to look for life, dead or alive, past or present.

If Martian life is found, Earthlings face two very different interpretative hurdles. If there is DNA and protein present, as there are in Earth creatures, then Martian life might be seen as coming from Earth via cosmic collisions that over billions of years sent microbes flying on rocky debris through space like windblown seeds. (Or, an equally possible theory that scientists hold is that all terrestrial life originally came from Mars -- that we, in effect, are the Martians.)

The other, more startling possibility is that Martian life is distinctly un-Earthlike. That would suggest that evolution is a cosmic imperative and that living things of one sort or another exist nearly anywhere in the universe. The discovery would give new life to speculations about the existence of sentient beings far more advanced than us.

Many scientists consider this the ultimate adventure. While conceding the potential blow to our self-importance, they see it as the beginning of a journey into a universe far more interesting than the ancients ever imagined.

For all its exciting promise, the new Bush proposal to send humans to Mars could conflict with this exploratory agenda, experts note. People are crawling with bacteria and could pollute landing sites and possibly infect Mars with terrestrial creatures that could wipe out any existing Martian life forms.

But Dr. Meyer of NASA headquarters said explorations of Mars for indigenous life would be fairly advanced by the time people arrived, letting planners either reduce the chance of contamination or harness human skills to dig even deeper into the ground to probe for dark ecosystems.

"We know how to drill on Earth without contaminating the subsurface," he said. "So humans going is, I don't think, a problem. Astronauts could help answer the questions."

Copyright New York Times, 2004

© Copyright 2004, Richard A. Mathies

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