Five new projects have been announced by the NASA astrobiology science and technology for exploring planets program (ASTEP). ASTEP promotes the search for life on other planets and supports research and exploration of the Earth’s most remote places.
New technology is used by ASTEP to seek, identify and characterise life that exists or did exist once on worlds such as Mars, Titan and Europa.
The five projects-
Mars Methane Plume Tracer
In 2004 Esa’s Mars express spacecraft detected small amounts of methane in Mars’s atmosphere. The Mars methane plume tracer will answer questions raised by Mars Express.
90% of methane on Earth is produced by life. There could be other explanations for the methane on other planets such as volcanism or hydrothermal vents. There are missions at the moment that are being considered to detect and study methane plumes from the orbit of Mars such as the exoMars trace gas orbiter.
Missions are also being created to collect samples around the plumes. These missions though won’t be possible unless the plumes are characterised and located and that’s where the Mars methane plume tracer comes in. From orbit it is only possible to localise a plume by about a kilometre or two and on the ground it will be necessary to get as close as a few metres to get samples.
This project will make it easier for scientists to discover plumes from orbit and allow more detailed control of Rovers as they approach the plumes in the future.
The shallow-borehole array for measuring Greenland emission of trace gases as an analogue for methane on Mars (GETGAMM).
This project also involves the methane plumes on Mars. It will help astrobiology scientists to discover the origin and potential biological significance of the plumes.
The three instruments will measure methane in the bedrock of Greenland. They consist of
- A Multi-path tunable laser spectrometer that is optimized for carbon isotope discrimination
- A cavity ring down spectrometer capable of both carbon and hydrogen isotopic measurements.
- A commercially produced integrated cavity output spectrometer for carbon isotopic measurements
This project will allow robots to do more intricate and complicated tasks. In year three of the project in Greenland a semi autonomous robot will drill and test out the research. The semi autonomous technology is in consideration for the 2018 mid range Rover Mission.
The Planetary Lake Lander
This project tests scenarios and technologies for deploying and floating a robotic platform that can perform studies while in water. It is again a three-year testing procedure.
This will eventually lead to a Lake Lander mission on Titan. A Lake landing has never been attempted before so there is a lot of research to do. The Lake Lander will be aware of its environment and the changes around it. It will make decisions for sampling and collecting data without human supervision as Titan is such a great distance away.
Valkyrie: phase 2
Valkyrie stands for very deep autonomous laser powered kilowatt class yo yoing robotic ice Explorer (How do they think of these names?). This is an automatic ice penetrating cyrobot which will be part of a NASA Europa lander mission. It will be designed to melt through the ice on Europa.
The future project will be penetration of glaciers reaching depths up to 200 m. Sensors will be deployed in the icecap so that environmental scientists can monitor the glaciers and the changes that they are experiencing due to global warming.
Robotic Investigation of Subsurface Life
This is again another three year campaign that is working on an autonomous Rover which is capable of drilling beneath the ground to collect samples. It maybe that places like Mars support life deep beneath the surface.
This will also benefit the Atacama Desert and show how life has adapted to the harsh conditions there.
All the missions will be operated as they will be in future operations during an actual planetary mission. This is a very exciting step for the search for life in the solar system and a step closer to the actual missions that will be sent.