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BOLD Plan To Find Mars Life On the Cheap

samzenpus posted more than 2 years ago | from the budget-search dept.

Mars 61

techfun89 writes "There is a BOLD new plan for detecting signs of microbial life on Mars. The nickname is BOLD, which stands for Biological Oxidant and Life Detection Initiative, would be a follow-up to the 1976 Mars Viking life-detection experiments. 'We have much better technology that we could use,' says BOLD lead scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, with Washington State University. He elaborates, 'Our idea is to make a relatively cheap mission and go more directly to characterize and solve the big question about the soil properties on Mars and life detection.' To help figure out the life-detection mystery, Schulze-Makuch and his colleagues would fly a set of six pyramid-shaped probes that would crash land, pointy end down, so they embed themselves four to eight inches into the soil. One of the instruments includes a sensor that can detect a single molecule of DNA or other nucleotide."

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Am I the only one... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818359)

...who pictured Stargate when they read this?

What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (1)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818389)

The B.O.L.D. program hinges on detecting oxygen exchange

What if the life form on Mars uses N2 instead?

Re:What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (4, Informative)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818409)

The B.O.L.D. program hinges on detecting oxygen exchange

What if the life form on Mars uses N2 instead?

Nitrogen is a bit on the inert side to be useful as life's energy source.

Re:What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (5, Interesting)

VortexCortex (1117377) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818745)

The B.O.L.D. program hinges on detecting oxygen exchange

What if the life form on Mars uses N2 instead?

Nitrogen is a bit on the inert side to be useful as life's energy source.

Well, what if they just breathe iron? You know, like some of the creatures here on Earth. [wikipedia.org] Mars has lot's of iron... it has sulfer, and even some water. I suppose the life on Earth currently uses oxygen, so that's what we're looking for? I mean, what about The Great Oxidation Catastrophe? [wikipedia.org] During which lots of this planet's anaerobic life was likely killed off (oxygen was poisonous to them, they didn't use it). Point being: We don't even know what to look for -- we have hardly any idea what the parameters of life are on our own planet. Until recently we thought nothing could survive at the bottom of the ocean, boy was that wrong.

I guess you've got to begin looking somewhere, and looking for the presence of life as we know it is a good start. However, all evidence will be inconclusive as to the existence of life unless they actually find life, or we do a whole lot more exploration of Mars than we've done of our own planet.

Re:What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818891)

It seems much more optimistic to assume that a life form evolved independently of that on earch would do so relying on a nucleotide based mechanism.

Re:What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818937)

Fortunately they're doing more than one experiment.

Re:What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39821815)

Maybe another approach is needed to bring that life out of hiding:

Probe bounces down onto Mars, unfolds revealing an entrance with a sign next to it.

"Congratulations! You're the lucky winner of a brand new iThing, one of the most popular items found on any planet in the system. Just step on into the chamber to collect your prize."

Re:What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (1)

Ihmhi (1206036) | more than 2 years ago | (#39822709)

Nitrogen is a bit on the inert side to be useful as life's energy source.

Well, the vast majority of Americans are a bit on the inert side too but we seem to manage just fine.

Re:What if the creature uses N2 rather than 02 ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39819287)

N2 has a very strong triple bond. It is an end state for various reaction, not an intermediary or beginning state. Virtually any reaction with N2 on the left will be endothermic.

High school chemistry - remember that?

Will it detect intelligent life (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818363)

Because there is bugger all down here on earth

Re:Will it detect intelligent life (1)

Eraesr (1629799) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818407)

Sure there is, but that's not what NASA is for. Besides, finding a new species of animal on Earth is not quite as much a revelation to humanity as finding life on another planet is.

Re:Will it detect intelligent life (4, Funny)

Eraesr (1629799) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818415)

Oops, I think I just proved your point.
Should've read the title of your post first
*hides in a corner*

Re:Will it detect intelligent life (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39821399)

I think that your saving grace here is that you noticed the title.. eventually :-)
but yes, way to go for providing an apt example

and no, I didn't set out to troll here.. :P

Re:Will it detect intelligent life (1)

crazyjj (2598719) | more than 2 years ago | (#39821339)

Sure there is, but that's not what NASA is for.

No, they're for stuff like testing Toyota's brakes [autonews.com] .

Re:Will it detect intelligent life (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818411)

When they fire back with a kinetic bombardment of their own?

Re:Will it detect intelligent life (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818533)

At this stage it probably will take an alien to spot the obvious monty python galaxy song reference in your post

Re:Will it detect intelligent life (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39822135)

Can I have your liver?

Crash land? (4, Funny)

sleiper (1772326) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818371)

Just run this as a joint mission between the US and the EU, problem solved.

Re:Crash land? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818391)

They wanted to keep it cheap...

Re:Crash land? (4, Funny)

jamesh (87723) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818775)

Just run this as a joint mission between the US and the EU, problem solved.

Too risky. It may just float softly to the ground. And then explode.

Re:Crash land? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39830351)

Europe will contribute the lego - it's cheap and survives crashes reasonably well. America will supply the measurements.

BOLD plan? (3, Funny)

Black Parrot (19622) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818385)

Looks more like an all-caps plan to me.

Re:BOLD plan? (1)

Kjella (173770) | more than 2 years ago | (#39819061)

Slashdot probably doesn't support the <b> tag in headlines ;)

Re:BOLD plan? (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829285)

When there's a wind-storm on Mars, it becomes the italics plan.

Birthday cakes India (-1, Offtopic)

annyhills (2592513) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818401)

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Isn't this just... (0, Offtopic)

undulato (2146486) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818437)

...pretty much the plot of WALL-E?

Microscope? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818439)

Why doesn't a single one of these missions to Mars have an on-board optical microscope? Wouldn't that "just work" to detect life? Instead they carry chemical analysis setups that return inconclusive or difficult to interpret data regarding life.

Is it a technical limitation?

Re:Microscope? (2)

ThunderBird89 (1293256) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818461)

For one, there's an eight-minute lag between here and Mars, and AFAIK, machine vision algorithms are not yet advanced enough to identify a generalized bacterium-shape among all the crystals and debris in a Martian soil sample. You'd need real-time human oversight for that.
Also, I'm not sure whether the optics would survive such a landing, but that's beside the point.

Re:Microscope? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818531)

Thanks.

I'm not totally convinced, for these reasons:
    - Mars robots take pictures of the surrounding landscape and soil, process it locally and negotiate the terrain based on that (to achieve directions from earth). That in itself (and many other aspects of the missions) is a much more challenging feat than identifying features in microscope imaging.
    - Other data acquisition techniques such as chemical analysis also work without lag. Why would a microscope need to sample/analyse/detect locally when other types of sampling just send back results in batch?

Re:Microscope? (5, Informative)

khipu (2511498) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818817)

No, you don't need machine vision algorithms or real-time human intervention. People often deal with much bigger delays in analyzing microscope images on earth. Phoenix actually had a microscope, they just aren't good at detecting bacteria.

Re:Microscope? (4, Insightful)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818943)

Because we can't reliably detect unknown life on THIS planet with an optical microscope?

Re:Microscope? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39820441)

Because there's a lot of complex sample-prep work associated with getting a good optical microscope picture where you can see what you want to. Just pointing a camera with a high-magnification lens at rocks doesn't tell you much -- even if the lifeforms are on the surface of the rocks, you probably need to dye them at the very least.

I may be mad... (4, Insightful)

die standing (2626663) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818657)

but I'm sober. How is it that life as we know it, consciousness, sentience, etc. is not enough? Think about it. Same universe. Same galaxy. Isn't life (as we know/call it) even in ONE place... enough? Beyond amazing, beyond impossible, totally and utterly improbable... yet here we are! So we get to mars and find a small pond of goo with some amino acids and proteins in it. So what? What's the big deal?

Re:I may be mad... (1)

GauteL (29207) | more than 2 years ago | (#39819989)

If this is the argument that comes from being sober, then we should be glad that so many of our brilliant scientists were inebriated for large parts of their lives.

To be more serious; it is about a thirst for knowledge and discovery, one of the main reasons for any scientific advances. Why should we be satisfied with exploring earth? Why shouldn't we explore the rest of our universe for life and other discoveries?

Re:I may be mad... (2)

Rogerborg (306625) | more than 2 years ago | (#39820137)

You're asking this question using the culmination of 40,000 years of technological advancement, every single step of which was based on the premise that our reach should always exceed our grasp.

On the day that we all collectively shrug and say "Eh, that's good enough" (likely after plugging in the first holosuite), then we're done as a species and might as well hand things over to the rats or cockroaches.

Re:I may be mad... (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 2 years ago | (#39823931)

utterly improbable

What if it's not? What if, instead, life is very probable in places with the right environment? What would that mean? What would that imply about all the planets around other stars that we are finding? Could there be life, even civilizations? Are they watching our star and wondering about the rocky planets orbiting it?

All of these just being components of one of the biggest questions humanity has ever asked itself:

Are we alone in the universe?

If you just aren't interested in the answer, fine, but to me it is that viewpoint that exemplifies the concept of "uninteresting".

Re:I may be mad... (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829305)

and find a small pond of goo with some amino acids and proteins in it.

it's called "soup" here on Earth.

False positives? (5, Interesting)

srussia (884021) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818719)

FTFS: "One of the instruments includes a sensor that can detect a single molecule of DNA or other nucleotide."

I wonder how many DNA molecules the probe might encounter on its way to Mars.

Re:False positives? (3, Informative)

Thiez (1281866) | more than 2 years ago | (#39819285)

Not sure why you got modded insightful. Space is almost a perfect vacuum, and the vast majority of the matter out there will be hydrogen with very little else. Even if there was DNA floating around in space, it would get destroyed by the radiation that's out there. If the probe can make it out of our atmosphere without getting contaminated with DNA then it will make it to Mars without encountering any DNA.

DNA contamination a certainty (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39820411)

Even with all we do for planetary protection, I think it would be quite challenging to get something to Mars with no DNA, somewhere.

Sure, we all wear full coverage bunny suits when working on the spacecraft for that reason, but it's not like we're not breathing the air in the room, or there's test equipment has nooks and crannies, etc.

They do biological assays with swabs and cultures, as well as a LAL(Limulus Amebocyte Lysate) and ATP, but it's hard to get "perfect"

Re:False positives? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39820577)

"Space is almost a perfect vacuum"

No it isn't! It's full of platinum, food, water and cheese cake! That's why the species MUST build a Space Elevator! For the SPECIES*!

* For values of "species" approaching "rich, white, middle-aged males".

Valles Marineres (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818783)

They should make a seventh probe, and aim it at the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valles_Marineris. It's kilometres deep so the atmosphere down there ought to be thicker (it's certainly more turbulent). Assuming Mars once had a thick atmosphere and running water (which seems to be the prevailing consensus) then it seems to me that the place that environment and any possible inhabitants would have been preserved longest is in the Valles.

Unless, of course, this huge crack in Mars was the epicentre of some great event that stripped away the atmosphere in the first place...

Pyramids of Mars (4, Funny)

KritonK (949258) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818841)

a set of six pyramid-shaped probes

So that's what the title of the Doctor Who episode was referring to! I wonder if the probes will locate Sutekh.

Re:Pyramids of Mars (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829207)

Remember, the Spirit rover had a BSOD moment when it tried to grind into a pyramid-shaped rock. Perhaps they should try another shape. Cones don't seem demon-associated much (unless Marvin tries to put CO2 ice-cream in it.)

Just six static probes? Good grief. (4, Insightful)

macraig (621737) | more than 2 years ago | (#39818899)

Mars may be smaller than Terra, but it's still an awfully big place. Even if life exists or once existed on Mars, there's no guarantees its presence would leave a mark everywhere. Six immovable probes might find nothing and STILL not answer the question. The only way we get a useful answer at all from just six bullets fired into the dunes is that one of them actually finds something; if they find nothing it still doesn't disprove the presence of life.

It's great that the people behind this want to make names for themselves, but we need to think - and plan and budget - much bigger than this if we truly want a definitive answer. This plan with a spaghetti western budget won't give us one. It's essentially a waste of time. Bold, yes, but also pointless where the stated goal is concerned.

Re:Just six static probes? Good grief. (2)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39819337)

Even if life exists or once existed on Mars, there's no guarantees its presence would leave a mark everywhere.

If it's anything like terrestrial life, it would.

But you are right in that this project will not give a definitive answer. There are many points of failure, the instruments can go wrong, the craft can introduce contamination to the sample etc. The only solid proof would be returning some soil sample to earth and finding the actual bacteria in it, but currently that's out of our reach both financially and technically.

Re:Just six static probes? Good grief. (2)

Joce640k (829181) | more than 2 years ago | (#39819473)

It's great that the people behind this want to make names for themselves, but we need to think - and plan and budget - much bigger than this if we truly want a definitive answer. This plan with a spaghetti western budget won't give us one.

An even better plan is to do a few simple experiments do help decide on what the big plan should be. If we can eliminate a few things first then it can make the big plan a whole lot cheaper.

So that's where pyramids come from! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39818903)

They are malfunctioning alien probes that landed upside-down.

Re:So that's where pyramids come from! (1)

Tablizer (95088) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829263)

and they landed on top of princes, killing them, and the radiation mummified them. Perhaps the princes on the African continent back then spammed space once too often, like they do now.

"All worlds are yours except Europa..." (1)

Raved Thrad (1864414) | more than 2 years ago | (#39819203)

Let's just hope we don't turn up any black monoliths.

Very helpful (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39819713)

Can you imagine if life on mars is discovered for real. I've never actually had any doubts that it exists. However it is a bit different once you get scientifical confirmation as result of extensive investigation, right? Pennsylvania Vacation [vacationhomes.net]

Pfff, Beagle 2 already did that (1)

SmallFurryCreature (593017) | more than 2 years ago | (#39820765)

They should just embed a microphone, if they hear "ouch", they found life... well... alive up till then.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beagle_2

Not enough depth. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39820985)

8 inches isn't enough.

Simulations have suggested that the UV bombardment of topsoil renders life surveys inaccurate down to around 2 metres. This is why ExoMars is going to have a 2m drill to get down there, anything on the surface even down to 8" is unlikely to survive.

no new Mars probes this decade (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 2 years ago | (#39821063)

Obama cut the Mars budget 38%, mainly in punishment for doubling the Curiosity lander cost. Another MAVEN orbiter is in assembly. After than no new Mars probes funded. Takes 5-9 years to plan, launch and execute a probe. NASA ended development of triple-probe sample return project and a joint ESA Mars-probe.

And this is before conservative republicans chop the budget, which they could do with a congressional majority next year.

Re:no new Mars probes this decade (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39823061)

That's NOT why he cut the Mars (Planetary & JPL) budget. No, the money was diverted to pork barrel crapolo work in Houston working on the new Super Pork Space Launch System for sending humans to nowhere. JPL does science while Houston just spends money in a congressionally powerful district. Nothing will come of the Houston money; I doubt that the rocket will ever fly and then where will it go?

Besides NASA figures that Mars exploration is on the verge of some dangerous discoveries such as life that could further bleed money from Houston. Better to nip that in the bud.

Re:no new Mars probes this decade (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 2 years ago | (#39823803)

Super Pork Launcher! Sounds like a little-known SNES title, and is about as relevant to space exploration today.

Which life? (1)

vvaduva (859950) | more than 2 years ago | (#39821103)

All these plans to "find life" on Mars will inevitably result in humans putting life on Mars...which we will find later. How much "contaminants" do we put on a planet's surface before we realize that something will eventually slip through the cracks?

Re:Which life? (2)

Belial6 (794905) | more than 2 years ago | (#39822719)

If and when that happens, it will be it's own distinct accomplishment. It will hold it's own distinct scientific discovery. If we could transplant life to Mars and it could take hold, Mars will have life. It would be a huge indicator that Panspermia is a good hypothesis. We only have one Mars, so we have to think about what scientific questions we want answered from it. If we contaminate it, then we can do experiments that revolve around putting Earth life on non Earth planets.

So why is it (1)

kilodelta (843627) | more than 2 years ago | (#39821437)

That they've been sending a fair number of landers to Mars over the past decade? There was little Sojourner, then Spirit, Opportunity and now Curiosity is one it's way there. And the tech changes between rovers. While the first three were solar, the latter is nuclear using an RTG meaning she doesn't need sunlight to do science. And Curiosity also has some AI features too which means she'll roam father over Mars surface.

Didn't this kill Mars exploration for years? (1)

Ransak (548582) | more than 2 years ago | (#39823085)

After all of the newspaper headlines reading 'MARS IS DEAD, NO LIFE FOUND!' killed public interest of Mars back during the 70s after the Viking probes' questionable experiments, I'm not sure firing six small static probes at a sizable planet to look for DNA is a good idea. If history is any indicator it seems like a big risk to the entire exploration effort.
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