What planetary targets should we prioritize for in situ searches for life? Should Mars get the majority of our attention?

  1. Shawn D Domagal-Goldman

    Given the prominence of Mars-related missions in the current plans for both NASA and ESA, should we focus our astrobiology research on the red planet? Or should we be more broad in our approach, and also prepare ourselves for future missions to the outer solar system?

    I *know* there are strong feelings out there on this topic. So have at it! :-)

  2. Shawn D Domagal-Goldman

    I should add that exoplanet would also fall under the same scrutiny. There is currently nothing on NASA’s docket that will find convincing signs of life from exoplanets. So should we continue that work, and prepare for missions beyond the next 5-10 years? Or should we instead focus our efforts on determining the habitability of exoplanets, something that can be addressed (at least preliminarily) with existing data and expected missions (TESS)?

  3. Catherine Neish

    Hi Shawn,

    In the near term, the only two places that we can look for life in-situ are Mars and Enceladus. Any life on Europa would be too hard to access, any life on Titan may be too ‘weird’ to identify, and in situ exploration isn’t possible on exoplanets.

    If we do send yet more rovers to Mars, though, it is *key* that they are actually capable of detecting life! There has not been a dedicated life detection experiment since Viking, but there are some wonderful technologies in development that may be able to address this question. If you can send such an instrument, then I think more missions to Mars are warranted. And having a roving life detection instrument would be much more effective at finding life than bringing back a single sample from Mars.

    For outer solar system exploration, an Enceladus orbiter with a high-precision mass spectrometer would also be quite effective at determining whether there is life in its subsurface ocean.


  4. George Cody

    Here is my heretical view. Specifically searching for traces of life on other planets is fine, but as a mission driver it is a fail. From my perspective, there may yet be life on Mars, or there may yet be a signature of life on Mars. I doubt that any mission could prove that there never was life on Mars (a more interesting question). So I would argue that NASA should target all solar system bodies/objects subject to efficiency. We should be learning as much as possible about our entire Solar System. Over Mars focus does not interest me. Sure go to Mars- happy that we are there, but I also want to go to TItan, the Kuiper belt, the Asteroid belt (yes I know we are doing two of the three- having done the one). I am just don’t place Mars so high on the totem pole- it seems like Mars is the best place to drive rovers. Not to be negative.

  5. Robert B Bruner

    I think a big driver for Mars is the possibility of sending humans there.

    The glamour of standing on the surface. It is Dr. Charles Bolden’s latest statement at the Humans to Mars conference just held in DC.

    Other locations only have Science as the driver. Politically very difficult in a time of budget problems.

  6. Shawn D Domagal-Goldman

    Catherine, I’ve heard Europa may have some of the same “geysers” that Enceladus has. Is that right? If so, would Europa be easier or harder to collect “geyser spray” from?

    One common thread that is emerging is sample return. We’ve collected samples with a couple missions already, have Osiris-REX on the calendar, and are planning long-term to get samples from Mars. People have also been kicking around the idea of Enceladus sample return, where we’d grab the geyser spray and bring it home.

    Given all that, what are people’s priorities for sample return? What are the measurements we’d want to have in place for astrobiological investigations of a sample? What are the protocols we’d need to put in place?

    Some of this is influenced by the planetary protection office at NASA and corresponding offices across the globe. But I’d love to hear these things addressed from an astrobiological perspective.

  7. Muammar Mansor

    I agree with the general view that Mars is important. It is certainly the most accessible and most likely mission to happen now. We understand a lot about Mars and at least one more mission that search for life thoroughly should be pushed forward.

    For our next step, I think that we should land on Titan. Titan, a moon of oily lakes and rain captured my imagination, and I am sure that it can fascinate the general public as well. If we do find life (loose definition, maybe something that is motile or can respond to heat) there, it will greatly expand our views and prove that life is versatile in the universe.

    On another note, maybe we should build a space elevator first so that we can launch spacecraft at a cheaper cost. Then we can launch spacecrafts to all our targets at once.