The race is on to land human explorers on Mars, possibly as early as the 2030s. NASA, the European Space Agency and the China National Space Administration all have plans, however vague, to put people on the Red Planet.
But the race to land on Mars risks sidelining—and potentially canceling out—a separate effort to find evidence of life on Mars, be it living microbes or the remains of long-dead ones. When Earth explorers arrive on the Red Planet, there’s a good chance they’ll bring Earth microbes with them.
That could contaminate Mars’ environment, and make it difficult or even impossible to distinguish Martian organisms from Earth organisms. In our rush to colonize another planet, we might thwart our best chance of finding life on that same planet.
But not if one Florida-based team has anything to say about it. The Agnostic Life Finding Association–Mars, or ALFA Mars, is scrambling to organize an unmanned mission to probe Mars’ underground ice deposits for the biological signs of present or past life. It would be the first private, uncrewed mission to Mars ever launched, and one that doesn’t depend on the whims of NASA, the ESA or the CNSA.
Well, at least not entirely. ALFA Mars might need to borrow a ride to Mars.
ALFA Mars is a new project of the Foundation for Applied Molecular, a consortium of researchers at the University of Florida, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Texas. The foundation, which formed in 2001 and has drawn funding from NASA, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and Department of Energy, aims to “understand life, what it is, and how to find it in the cosmos,” according to its website.
ALFA Mars focuses the foundation’s attention on Mars. The project hopes to conduct a thorough search for life on Mars before the planned landing of humans “significantly increas[es] a risk of false positives,” ALFA Mars stated in a press release it sent to reporters on April 18.
“The race to land on Mars risks sidelining—and potentially canceling out—a separate effort to find evidence of life on Mars, be it living microbes or the remains of long-dead ones.”
The proposed mission is a longshot bid for a history-making astrobiological breakthrough. And it’s only necessary because, despite lip-service to the contrary, none of the world’s space agencies have prioritized a search for evidence of life on Mars. At least, not since the very first Earth probes to land on the Red Planet: NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976.
The Viking probes boiled scoops of Martian soil and analyzed the resulting gas for signs of native biology. NASA scientists—well, all but one—concluded the soil was lifeless. “After this ‘failed’ attempt to find life, NASA gave up on further attempts,” Jan Spacek, the senior research scientist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida and ALFA Mars’ manager, told The Daily Beast.
In the space agencies’ defense, looking for alien life is really hard when no one knows for sure what alien life would even look like. It’s a problem ALFA Mars has grappled with. “Since we don’t know what potential Martians look like or their biology, we have to rely on characteristics that must apply to life in general,” the organization stated.
Earth life has DNA or RNA. “We cannot know if Martians will also have DNA,” ALFA Mars stated. But Martian life should at least include some kind of “genetic polymer” that would transmit information from generation of organisms to the next.
It might not be DNA or RNA, but it should function in the same way. And ALFA Mars thinks it can detect it. “Thanks to decades of research in synthetic biology, we also know what properties genetic polymers should have, regardless of their origin from any planet,” the group stated.
ALFA Mars has built a prototype device it calls the Agnostic Life Finder, or ALF. It works by “filtering large samples of sparsely microbially-populated water—like we believe exists on Mars,” Chris Temby, an undergraduate physics student at the University of California, Santa Barbara and ALFA Mars team member, explained to The Daily Beast. “After separating out salts and other ions, ALFA subsequently concentrates and analyzes genetic information.”
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. “We have not yet tested it,” Spacek conceded.
The team needs to test and refine the new instrument, then figure out how to get it to Mars before any astronauts or taikonauts step foot on the planet. Oh—and there’s the money problem, too. Private space exploration is becoming more common. One ALFA Mars team member, MIT astrobiologist Janusz Petkowski, is also helping organize a private mission searching for life on Venus. But paying for these non-government probes is always hard.
To test out the life-finder, ALFA Mars has enlisted some of its young scientists-in-training—undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs from across the United States and Europe—to travel to the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island, in northern Canada around a thousand miles from the North Pole, as early as this summer.
The icy ground on Devon Island can stand in as a rough approximation of Mars’ subsurface polar ice caps. “It is imperative for us to test ALF in an extreme environment such as the High Canadian Arctic in order to replicate Martian conditions as closely as possible,” Yael Brynjegard-Bialik, a University of California, Santa Barbara physicist and ALFA Mars team member, told The Daily Beast.
“It is imperative for us to test ALF in an extreme environment such as the High Canadian Arctic in order to replicate Martian conditions as closely as possible.”
— Yael Brynjegard-Bialik, University of California, Santa Barbara
While the students are prodding the Arctic ice, Spacek and other ALFA Mars leaders will be trying to find a solution to a third major challenge: wrangling a ride to the Red Planet. While they could buy their own rocket, the cost and prep time might be prohibitive. The best way for ALFA Mars’ probe to get to Mars, Spacek said, is to piggyback on a separate mission that’s already on the calendar—and fully funded. “The agnostic life-finding instrument we are developing is a hitchhiker,” Spacek said.
There’s an obvious candidate. To prepare for human explorers, space agencies and private companies plan to begin establishing robotic factories on Mars that can process ice into drinkable water and rocket fuel for the explorers’ return voyage.
NASA’s been studying robotic ice-mining on Mars for decades now. Billionaire Elon Musk, whose rocket company SpaceX is tangled up in NASA’s Mars’ ambitions, clearly sees an opportunity. He’s been talking up the idea of SpaceX building and launching the ice-mining ‘bots that would form the basis of a pre-explorer “propellant factory” on Mars. To make sure there’s a healthy stockpile of rocket fuel on Mars before the people arrive, SpaceX’s proposed mining ‘bots might need to depart Earth in the next few years.
That could be ALFA Mars’ best chance at hitching a ride, Spacek said. “We believe that we can convince private billionaires or NASA to give ALF a free ride,” Spacek said. The pitch is simple: “Since you are going to mine water on Mars anyway, if you take ALF with you, you can [also] find life there.”
There’s a downside to piggybacking a search for life on ice-mining missions. To conduct a thorough survey of the Martian ice caps, astrobiologists would eventually need to piggyback on a lot of mining efforts, all over the Red Planet’s poles.
“Science-industry collaborations like this can be great drivers for scientific progress,” Niels Ligterink, a physicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, told The Daily Beast. “But the question remains when large-scale Martian ice-mining will become a reality.” People might reach Mars before extensive mining infrastructure is in place.
And even with a free ride, ALFA Mars needs a lot of cash. Sending just one team member to the Arctic this summer will cost $20,000. The group wants to send at least two. Then there’s the cost of the final life-finder instrument. It’s not clear how much that might set ALFA Mars back, but it’s worth noting that the similar private mission to Venus needed several hundred thousand dollars in startup funding.
ALFA Mars will be looking far and wide for money. The group is accepting small donations and also soliciting sponsorships from big companies. It’s an uphill climb for a scrappy but ambitious organization. “We are still short on funding,” Spacek said. “At this point, there is a real possibility that we will miss this year’s opportunity to test ALF in the Arctic.”
Every year of delay raises the risk that ALFA Mars won’t be ready in time to send its life-finder probe to Mars, collect samples and analyze the data before human explorers arrive and spoil the pristine red environment… and any microbes—living or dead—that might linger under its surface.