One concept most scientists agree on is that water is necessary for life. Because of this, finding water on Mars has become a mission for NASA. In the October 3 issue of Science, it was reported that the Phoenix mission to Mars has found minerals that “are indicators of liquid water in the past,” according to principal Phoenix investigator Peter Smith at a press conference on September 29. These minerals were sampled mere centimeters above the suspected position of frozen water.
To discover if indeed water had interacted with the minerals, the Phoenix took samples and ran several tests. Through these tests, soil samples were heated to high temperatures while Phoenix measured the amount of water and carbon dioxide released. Scientists believe that anywhere from tens of thousands to several million years ago the frozen ice on Mars may have warmed. This could have caused the ice to melt, allowing for the possibility of microbial life to develop in the soil. Even if this holds true, it is possible that the water and microbes formed elsewhere on the planet and were relocated via wind and time.
Unfortunately, this gives scientists little insight into when the liquid water existed or where. To make matters worse, the Phoenix machine only has a matter of months before the Martian winter disables it. Since the Phoenix is powered by solar panels and the sun is increasingly absent, it will soon fail to function. Phoenix has, however, already finished its original 90-day mission and an extended 30-day mission. While Smith would like to look for organic matter resulting from past life, William Boynton, another lead scientist, is not very hopeful of success. He notes that if any does exist, it exists in very small quantities. Scientists anticipate that Phoenix will continue to operate into November; however, toward the end of the month, it is likely the extreme cold and snow will completely disable the system.
Another mission, however, is already being planned for 2010. Recently, 100 scientists met to vote on where to send the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to have the most success of finding water. This is important since it will cost $1.9 billion. As always, there were two opposing groups. The spectroscopists hope to send the machine to areas which give off spectral colors distinctive of rocks which have interacted with water. The second group, geologists, believe any site showing rock formations clearly formed by interaction with water would be the most likely place for success. It will still take until November for the managers and landing-site steering committee to decide which three spots should be in contention as the most viable. It will be until spring 2009 before a winning site is declared.
Although the MSL was originally planned for launch in the fall of 2009, it was feared that this would be delayed for two years. Scientists grew anxious that this could delay other missions or cancel them all together if the MSL was not launched as planned. The reason for this was increased cost and complexity of the MSL machine. The MSL is four times heavier than the typical machines and is loaded with scientific instruments to examine the soil and atmosphere of Mars. This has been costly. In 2004, the rover was to cost $1.2 billion. As of this year, it is now projected to cost $1.9 billion.
The flow of money has not been staunched, however. NASA expects another $300 million to be added to the project, increasing the total cost to $2.2 billion. If this happens, it could threaten the 2013 Scout mission which is estimated to cost $485 million. The 2016 mission could also be cancelled. If it is, the $1.4 billion that would be freed would be put toward the MSL mission and two other rovers currently on Mars. Unfortunately, delaying the MSL launch could cost even more than continuing with it, according to Jack Mustard who leads NASA’s Mars science advisory panel. He noted that, “A two year delay could increase the cost of the mission…that would come out of the Mars budget.”
Regardless of the decision made regarding MSL and future rover missions, it is certain that the search for water and life on Mars will cost significant amounts of money in the near future. Although the findings from this type of study could be interesting, spending this much money on such a project tends to seem a bit irresponsible given the $700 billion bailout the government is also slated to spend in an attempt to save the economy. Perhaps the billions of dollars currently marked for rover missions could be reallocated to a fund for tax payer relief instead.
Kerr, Richard. Minerals Suggest Water Once Flowed On Mars—But Where? (3 Oct 2008). Science 322(5898) p. 32.
Kerr, Richard. Culture Wars Over How to Find an Ancient Niche for Life on Mars. (3 Oct 2008). Science 322(5898) p. 39.
Lawler, Andrew. Rising Costs Could Delay NASA’s Next Mission to Mars and Future Launches. (26 Sept 2008). Science 321(5897) p. 1754.