The search for evidence of life on Mars by NASA has caused disagreement among experts, as the expenses for the mission skyrocket.
This is one of the most intricate space missions ever planned. A group of robotic probes and rovers will be sent to Mars to collect rock samples, which will later be returned to Earth for examination in search of evidence of life.
This project, known as the Mars Sample Return by NASA, would include the groundbreaking actions of launching from a different planet and rendezvousing in orbit around another planet for the first time.
However, this highly ambitious project is facing significant challenges. Its expenses have significantly increased and an independent panel, established by the space agency, has recently cautioned that the original estimated cost of $4.4 billion is expected to rise to $8-11 billion. This could potentially lead to the cancellation of several other NASA missions.
According to the report from the panel, the Mars Sample Return was created with budget expectations that were not feasible. The current funding available does not align with a realistic schedule, cost, and technical plan. In fact, the board determined that Nasa’s plan has a very low chance of success with the current budget.
Unfortunately, the escalating expenses of the mission have caused frustration among many space experts, resulting in the delay of several Nasa-funded endeavors. One of these is Veritas, a project aimed at investigating the reasons behind Venus’ transformation from a potentially habitable planet to a scorching, uninhabitable one.
The Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission, which was intended to study the upper atmosphere, has claimed another victim. In light of this, plasma physicist Allison Jaynes from Iowa University expressed concern to the journal Science, stating that the mission’s impact is essentially crippling the scientific community. She believes that the burden of the Mars Sample Return mission is taking away from other important NASA research endeavors.
The objective of the mission will depend on the use of the robot rover Perseverance, which is currently traversing the crimson planet and gathering samples of rocks from Mars. These samples are then placed in titanium tubes, each comparable in size to a hot dog, and preserved. In the coming years, the agency plans to deploy a lander, currently being created by Lockheed Martin, onto Mars.
The Perseverance rover will load its containers onto a lander, which will then be launched into space and put into orbit around Mars. A separate craft, created by the European Space Agency (ESA), will retrieve the rock samples and transport them back to Earth. According to NASA, a small probe will deliver the samples to scientists on Earth, potentially as early as 2033.
Regrettably, the space agency initially underestimated the required size of the spacecraft for retrieving samples from the Martian surface. Furthermore, it did not anticipate the intricate procedures necessary to protect against cross-contamination between Earthly bacteria or viruses and Martian soil samples, as well as guarding against possible contamination from Martian life.
Increases in costs have been attributed to both inflation and supply shortages.
Consequently, numerous prominent scientists have urged for the mission to be abandoned, while many others argue that it should be preserved.
The second group mentions the case of the James Webb space telescope, which was almost cancelled due to its cost increasing from $1 billion to $10 billion. This led to the delay of other space missions. However, the telescope is currently capturing stunning images of faraway stars and galaxies, and is revolutionizing our understanding of the vastness of space.
According to Professor Lewis Dartnell of Westminster University, the potential of the Mars Sample Return is also transformative. Currently, in order to search for evidence of past life on Mars, we must condense an entire laboratory into a smaller size and equip it with wheels and cameras so that it can navigate Mars and potentially discover signs of life.
The retrieval of samples from Mars will revolutionize our understanding, as we will now have access to Martian rock in the most advanced laboratories on Earth. This greatly increases our likelihood of discovering potential signs of past life on Mars.
Professor Caroline Smith from the Natural History Museum in London supports this idea. She explains that these samples are not expected to contain dinosaur bones, but rather evidence of ancient primitive life. This evidence can only be discovered through extensive physical and chemical testing, often requiring large instruments like the UK’s Diamond Light Source.
“We can only confidently state that a sample contains remnants of living organisms after conducting all of these tests.”
Researchers now hypothesize that Mars was once a hospitable planet with a temperate climate and abundant water, making it conducive to the development of life. However, over time, the planet’s magnetic field weakened, causing it to lose its protective atmosphere and water reserves. As a result, it became exposed to harsh ultraviolet radiation, making it challenging for any potential life forms to thrive.
According to Professor Andrew Coates from University College London, it is essential to determine if there was evolution of living organisms in the past and also to uncover if they currently exist in other parts of the solar system.
Currently, we are aware that there are bodies of water, containing high levels of organic materials, on Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and on Enceladus (a moon of Saturn).
We must explore these worlds because life may have developed there. If we discover that life exists on these faraway moons and once existed on Mars, it will strongly suggest that life is common throughout the universe.