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Martian microbes, maybe

Canadian scientists get involved in looking at possible biosignatures of life on Mars

Kimberly Strong has spent much of her career as a scientist at the University of Toronto looking at the Earth’s atmosphere. Now she’s looking for signs of life on Mars.

Along with an international group of scientists, Strong submitted a proposal to NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) for an instrument they had developed to be on board the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (MTGO). MTGO is the first step in the ExoMars mission, a NASA and ESA collaboration. Early in August, it was announced that the instrument Strong and her team created – the Mars Atmospheric Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer (MATMOS) – was among the five chosen, out of 19 proposals.

The resulting press is splashy: “Searching for life on Mars,” reads the headline from “MATMOS will probe the red planet’s atmosphere for biological sources of methane,” says a line in the Globe and Mail.

But the coverage is misleading: MATMOS – which will not land on Mars –is not in search of organisms themselves. Martian life, if it exists, would likely be anaerobic microbes (which survive in the absence of oxygen) that take refuge underground from the planet’s harsh surface. Not little green men, not intelligent beings – and not something flying around in the atmosphere where MATMOS could crash into it.

MATMOS will collect data on methane, first discovered on Mars in 2003, by looking through the atmosphere at sunrise and sunset as it orbits the planet. The methane in the Martian atmosphere might be a biosignature – a phenomenon produced by something living. Or it might exist in patterns that indicate a geological origin.

I called Strong while she was in Australia, working on a project to measure carbon dioxide in the Arctic in collaboration with a few of her MATMOS team members.

“It all kind of ties together,” Strong said of her work as a whole. Her graduate work dealt with Jupiter’s atmosphere, so she’s excited to be doing planetary research again.

I asked her what the most exciting find of the MATMOS data could be.

“It would be absolutely amazing if we had conclusive evidence that the methane was coming from a biological source,” she said.

Definitive evidence of life on Mars?
“Yes, that would be the point of the mission.”

Later, in a phone conversation with Jorge Vago, an ExoMars scientist from ESA who spoke to me from his office in the Netherlands. I asked about the methane evidence. Could it be conclusive of Martian life?
Vago was cautious: “Look. ‘Conclusive’ is a very tall word. Conclusive is in the eye of the beholder.” He explained that if the data from the orbiter were to indicate a biological source, there would be several steps and missions that would need to follow to confirm what was found.

“If anything, I hope the mission will be able to find results that point to a possible life origin, if we are lucky, and then people will be fighting over this for a number of years. And slowly, some sort of consensus may emerge,” said Vago.

Like many frontiers of science these days, looking for signs of life has encouraged cooperation among Earth’s own inhabitants. While the early days of space travel, from Sputnik to the race for the moon, pitted nations against each other, national space agencies are now looking to reach milestones together.

“We have finite resources,” said Strong, referring to the space exploration community as a whole. “These are challenging missions. The more we can work together, the better it is, really.”

ESA and NASA, once sending separate missions to Mars, are now sharing their resources for the joint ExoMars mission. The mission’s MGTO segment is slated for launch in 2016 and another component involving a pair of rovers is slated for 2018.

Other organizations will contribute smaller technological components. A large portion of MATMOS, including key pieces of the instrument’s hardware, is contracted to the engineering company ABB Bomem of Quebec City and will be funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Paying for space exploration is expensive, but Canada’s bill for MATMOS is, as Strong said, “peanuts compared to the G20.”

“All this space exploration, you should look at it a bit as a long-term investment on the future of human kind,” Vago said.

Vago thinks the justification for the cost is clearer for the ExoMars mission than for others. A mission geared toward looking for signs of life, Vago explains, could have practical implications for geology. Finding life on Mars would be helpful in understanding the origins of life on our own planet. Mars is pristine: there are no tectonic plates folding rocks back into a molten core and erasing the planet’s historical record – essential information about the genesis of life.

Last Thursday, I sat down with Hojatollah Vali in his office at McGill, and talked about the possibility of life on Mars and space travel. Vali is an associate professor who studies bacteria and teaches an astrobiology course in the winter semester.

He elaborated on the implications of finding life on Mars, suggesting that examining life on Mars would also help tell us if life has universal components. Did life evolve uniquely on Earth, or is it the cousin of life elsewhere?
I asked him why we should put money into planetary studies, why it’s in a nation’s interest to spend money to go and explore and figure these things out. He laughed, “I struggle with this.”

He paused, and leaned back in his chair. “Can we justify airplanes that go and kill people? Whatever we learn [on Mars] will make us a better people, instead of going to destroy things.”

Funding is still an issue for space exploration. The sample return mission scheduled for ExoMars in the 2020s is the kind of thing that keeps getting pushed back.

Sample return is one more step toward, someday, sending astronauts. Scientists like Strong and her team can do much of their work remotely with satellites, but a manned mission still holds a certain kind of wonder, a “let’s see if we can do this” appeal.

Vali mused that if we look at humans as the long-term goal, there are practical applications to be seen in a crewed Mars mission. In the distant future, civilization could expand to Mars and beyond. If Earth no longer suited or supported human life, we wouldn’t have to downsize. We could go other places – to other planets.

As my conversation with Vali wrapped up, I offered my line about how much things have changed since the space race and express my support of space agencies’ widespread cooperation. He looked unenthused. He said the CSA contributes to NASA projects because their budget is too small for the organization to operate solo. He’s disappointed that CSA is stuck footing the bill for construction of instruments for other organizations’ projects – like the robotic arm they built for the International Space Station, a laser for NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander, and now MATMOS for ExoMars. In not conducting their own, independent experiments, they’re shying away from pure science.

“Their mandate is really technology,” said Vali. “I hope we could spend more on research.”