March 17, 2022, was a rough day for Jorge Vago. A planetary physicist, Vago heads science for part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars program. His team was mere months from launching Europe’s first Mars rover — a goal they had been working toward for nearly two decades. But on that day, ESA suspended ties with Russia’s space agency over the invasion of Ukraine. The launch had been planned for Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is leased to Russia.
“They told us we had to call the whole thing off,” Vago says. “We were all grieving.”
It was a painful setback for the beleaguered Rosalind Franklin rover, originally approved in 2005. Budget woes, partner switches, technical issues and the Covid-19 pandemic had all, in turn, caused previous delays. And now, a war. “I’ve spent most of my career trying to get this thing off the ground,” Vago says. Complicating things further, the mission included a Russian-made lander and instruments, which the member states of ESA would need funding to replace. They considered many options, including simply putting the unused rover in a museum. But then, in November, came a lifeline, when European research ministers pledged 360 million euros to cover mission expenses, including replacing Russian components.
When the rover finally does, hopefully, blast off in 2028, it will carry a suite of advanced instruments — but one in particular could make a huge scientific impact. Designed to analyze any carbon-containing material found underneath Mars’s surface, the rover’s next-generation mass spectrometer is the linchpin of a strategy to finally answer the most burning question about the Red Planet: Is there evidence of past or presentlife?
“There are a lot of different ways that you can search for life,” says analytical chemist Marshall Seaton, a NASA postdoctoral program fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and coauthor of a paper onplanetary analysisin theAnnual Review of Analytical Chemistry. Perhaps the most obvious and direct route is simply looking for fossilized microbes. Butnonliving chemistrycan createdeceptively lifelike structures. Instead, the mass spectrometer will help scientists look for molecular patterns that are unlikely to be formed in the absence of living biology.
Hunting for the patterns of life, instead of structures or specific molecules, has an added benefit in an extraterrestrial environment, Seaton says. “It allows us to not only look for life as we know it, but for life as we don’t know it.”
Packing for Mars
At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, DC, planetary scientist William Brinckerhoff shows off a prototype of the rover’s mass spectrometer, known as the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer, or MOMA. Roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase, the instrument is a labyrinth of wires and metal. “It’s really a workhorse,” Brinkerhoff says as his colleague, planetary scientist Xiang Li, adjusts screws on the prototype before demonstrating a carousel that holds samples.
This working prototype is used to analyze organic molecules in Mars-like soils on Earth. And once the real MOMA gets to Mars, approximately in 2030, Brinckerhoff and his colleagues will use the prototype — as well as a pristine copy kept in a Mars-like environment at NASA — to test tweaks to experimental protocols, troubleshoot issues that come up during the mission and facilitate interpretation of Mars data.
This latest mass spectrometer can trace its roots backnearly 50 years, to the first mission that studied Martian soil. For the twin 1976 Viking landers, engineers miniaturized room-size mass spectrometers to roughly the footprint of today’s desktop printers. The instruments were also on board the 2008 Phoenix lander, the 2012 Curiosity rover and later Mars orbiters from China, India and the US.
Anyone visiting Brinckerhoff’s prototype must first pass a display case with a dismantled copy of the Viking instrument, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. “This is like a national treasure,” Brinckerhoff says, enthusiastically pointing out components.
Mass spectrometers are indispensable tools that are used for analytical chemistry in laboratories and other facilities worldwide. TSA agents use them to test luggage for explosives at the airport. EPA scientists use them to test drinking water for contaminants. And drugmakers use them to determine chemical structures of potential new medications.
Many kinds of mass spectrometers exist, but each “is a three-part instrument,” explains Devin Swiner, an analytical chemist at the pharmaceutical company Merck. First, the instrument vaporizes molecules into the gas phase, and also gives them an electrical charge. These charged, or ionized, gas molecules can then be manipulated with electric or magnetic fields so they’ll move through the instrument.
Second, the instrument sorts ions by a measurement that scientists can relate to molecular weight, so they can determine the number and type of atoms a molecule contains. Third, the instrument records all the “weights” in a sample along with their relative abundance.
With MOMA aboard, the Rosalind Franklin rover will land at a Martian site that roughly 4 billion years ago likely had water, a crucial ingredient for ancient life. The rover’s cameras and other instruments will help to select samples and provide context about their environment. A drill will retrieve ancient samples from as deep as two meters. Scientists hypothesize that’s far enough, Vago says, to be shielded from cosmic radiation on Mars that breaks up molecules “like a million little knives.”
Space-bound mass spectrometers must be rugged and lightweight. A mass spectrometer with MOMA’s capabilities would normally occupy multiple workbenches, but it’s been shrunk substantially. “To be able to take something that can be as big as a room to the size of like a toaster or a small suitcase and send it into space is a very huge deal,” Swiner says.
The look of life
MOMA will help scientists look for telltale signs of life on Mars by sifting through molecules in search of patterns that are unlikely to be formed any other way. For instance, lipids — compounds that include building blocks of cell membranes — have a preponderance of even numbers of carbon atoms in nearly all living things, while nonliving chemistry produces a more equal mix of even and odd numbers of carbon atoms. Finding a set of lipids with carbon atoms that are multiples of a number — rather than a random assortment — is a potential signature of life.
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Similarly, amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — can be created either by life or by non-biological chemistry. They come in two forms that are mirror images of each other but are otherwise identical, like left and right hands. On Earth, life overwhelmingly contains only left-handed amino acids. Nonliving chemistry makes both left- and right-handed varieties. In other words, a large excess of either left- or right-handed amino acids is more lifelike than a more even mixture.
More generally, scientists think that chemical distributions similar to these would be indicative of life even if the molecules exhibiting the patterns don’t exist in Earth biochemistry.
Previous Mars missions that included mass spectrometers ran into problems that hampered their ability to identify signs of life. Scientists took those hard-earned lessons and designed MOMA to overcome those hurdles, including one of the most troubling ones: the notorious molecule destroyer, perchlorate. Perchlorate, which also turns up in extreme Earth environments like South America’sAtacama Desert, can degrade organic molecules at high temperatures, obscuring potential signs of life.
In 2008, the Mars Phoenix lander discovered perchlorate ions in Mars soil. Two other missions, the Viking lander and the Curiosity rover, detected chlorinated hydrocarbons — possible byproducts of perchlorate reacting with Martian molecules in the high-temperature ovens of their mass spectrometers. This meant that perchlorate may have obscured any evidence of organic molecules that could indicate life.
MOMA cleverly circumvents the perchlorate problem with an ultraviolet laser. The laservaporizes and ionizes samples in one go, with pulses of light lasting under two nanoseconds — too quick for perchlorate reactions to occur.
The laser has another benefit: It leaves molecules largely intact when giving them a charge to create ions. Viking and Curiosity generated ions by bombarding them with electrons. Those collisions didn’t preserve weak chemical bonds that can be important for determining the structures of molecules in a sample, whereas the laser keeps molecule fragmentation to a minimum. MOMA can then sort those relatively intact ions and deliberately fragment a single ion of interest in isolation, something neither Viking nor Curiosity could do. By analyzing the resulting puzzle pieces of that ion, it’s possible to determine the chemical structure of the original molecule from the Martian sample and thus identify what it is.
It will be the first time this laser technique goes to Mars, but tests on Earth suggest it will work. The prototype found traces of organic molecules even in the presence of more perchlorate than Phoenix detected in Martian soil, Brinckerhoff says. And in Mars-like samples collected in Yellowstone National Park,it detected lipidsand other molecules that are more complex than ones picked up on previous Mars missions.
MOMA, like its predecessors, also has high-temperatureovensand scientists can still opt to use these instead of the laser to vaporize samples. If the laser turns up hints of amino acids, for instance, the oven option could provide information the laser cannot. When in oven mode, MOMA uses three chemical reagents that stabilize molecules to facilitate mass spectrometry. One of these, which has never before been used on Mars, is there to tell apart left- and right-handed amino acids, enabling it to make a case for living or nonliving origins in a way that prior missions could not.
MOMA won’t be the last word on whether life ever existed on Mars. Even the most tantalizing results would have to be confirmed by repeated experiments and lines of evidence from the rover’s other instruments, Vago says. Some confirmatory work also could take place through other missions or even someday from analysis of Mars samples brought back to Earth. “We will need to build a case, because otherwise nobody’s going to believe us,” Vago says.
The international team of scientists that has been working on the missionknows what they need to build that case, but until the Rosalind Franklin Rover lands on the Red Planet’s surface, they can’t get started. All of those scientists shared the disappointment in March 2022 of seeing the long-stalled mission delayed once again.
But for Brinckerhoff, that disappointment is tempered with excitement: After all, the mission is still alive. “This thing is the best of all of us,” he says, “and just to see it operate on Mars is going to be career catharsis.”
This article originally appeared inKnowable Magazine, a nonprofit publication dedicated to making scientific knowledge accessible to all.Sign up forKnowable Magazine’s newsletter.
What is the longest mission to Mars? ›
Mars Sample Return
The 2001 Mars Odyssey mission is NASA's longest-lasting spacecraft at Mars. The spacecraft launched on April 7, 2001, and arrived at Mars on October 24, 2001, 0230 Universal Time (October 23, 7:30 pm PDT/10:30 EDT).
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is training four people to live on planet Mars this summer. While the endeavor to send humans to the neighbouring planet on the part of the US space agency is not new, the four 'Martians' will be part of NASA's human exploration expedition on Mars.What was the most successful Mars mission? ›
NASA's Opportunity rover was one of the most successful and enduring interplanetary missions. Opportunity landed on Mars in early 2004 soon after its twin rover Spirit. Opportunity operated almost 15 years, setting several records and making a number of key discoveries.What were the goals of the Mars curiosity mission what were some of its important findings? ›
NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012 to search for evidence that the planet could once have supported Earth-like life. It found that its landing site, Gale Crater, once had a calm lake that could have supported life. Curiosity is now studying how Mars' environment transformed into an inhospitable desert.How many years could a human mission to Mars take to complete? ›
With current technology, NASA calculations estimate a crewed mission to Mars and back, plus time on the surface, could take somewhere between two and three years.How many missions to Mars have failed? ›
Out of a total of 12 landing attempts on the red planet from different space agencies, only eight have been successful- and all of these have been from NASA.Who will go to Mars in 2030? ›
Elon Musk's SpaceX COO says manned missions will reach Mars by 2030. NASA says otherwise. Elon Musk's company has set itself the ambitious task to make space travel accessible for humanity. Humanity could reach the Red Planet and the Moon sooner than we think.What is the next Mars mission 2024? ›
The company will launch NASA's two-spacecraft ESCAPADE mission in 2024 with its forthcoming New Glenn rocket, assuming Blue Origin has it ready in time. Blue Origin is reaching from low Earth orbit to Mars.What is the Mars mission 2025? ›
For 2025, the landing module transporting four astronauts was proposed to land on Mars. They envisioned the crew to be met by the rover, and taken to the Mars One colony.Which Mars mission failed? ›
Unfortunately, America's Mars Polar Lander failed just before touching down on the planet in 1999. The 2000s didn't start out much better. On Christmas day 2003, the UK's Beagle 2 touched down on Mars, but one of its solar panels failed to open and the mission was lost.
What are the future missions to Mars? ›
The next missions expected to arrive at Mars are: The ExoMars program of ESA has delayed the launch of the Rosalind Franklin rover, until later in the 2020s. Mars Orbiter Mission 2 by India, planned launch in 2024.Can life exist on Mars? ›
To date, no proof of past or present life has been found on Mars. Cumulative evidence suggests that during the ancient Noachian time period, the surface environment of Mars had liquid water and may have been habitable for microorganisms, but habitable conditions do not necessarily indicate life.What is the biggest goal of the missions to Mars? ›
A top priority in our exploration of Mars is understanding its present climate, what its climate was like in the distant past, and the causes of climate change over time.What three things did curiosity find on Mars? ›
The Curiosity rover found that ancient Mars had the right chemistry to support living microbes. Curiosity found sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon-- key ingredients necessary for life--in the powder sample drilled from the "Sheepbed" mudstone in Yellowknife Bay.What is the main mission of Mars? ›
Studying Mars' Habitability, Seeking Signs of Past Microbial Life, Collecting and Caching Samples, and Preparing for Future Human Missions.Has a human mission gone to Mars yet? ›
Proposals for human missions to Mars have come from e.g. NASA, European Space Agency, Boeing, and SpaceX. As of 2023, only robotic landers and rovers have been on Mars. The farthest humans have been beyond Earth is the Moon, under the Apollo program.Is the Mars One mission still happening? ›
Much has been said about Mars One over the years, with some questioning whether the whole thing was a scam from the outset, or if the people behind it were simply naïve about the challenges of going to Mars. Whatever the truth, the saga is over now.Can humans survive the radiation on Mars? ›
"Space radiation is mellow in some places on Mars. We expect it to be higher where there is hydrogen near the ground," Lee said. "In any case, it is something that, over course of months, would end up killing you as well."What are 4 challenges of a human mission to Mars? ›
Radiation, microgravity, and astronaut health. Isolation and psychological issues. Communications (in transit and on Mars) The Mars approach and orbital insertion.Why has no one visited Mars? ›
So why haven't humans yet traveled to Mars? According to NASA, there are a number of obstacles that we still need to overcome before sending a human mission to the planet, including technological innovation and a better understanding of the human body, mind and how we might adapt to life on another planet.
Why is a mission to Mars so difficult? ›
Three things make Mars landings difficult—the planet's gravity, Mars' atmosphere and our distance from the red planet. Mars is less massive than Earth, but its atmosphere is also perilously thin.Is Elon Musk Going To Mars? ›
Meanwhile, Elon Musk has teased when humans will reach Mars for years predicting a 2029 landing most recently. Taking to Twitter last year in March, he said that he now sees 2029 as the earliest date humans might first step on Mars. More recently, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO even spoke more about his Mars mission.Who will take humans to Mars? ›
NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) will be the world's most powerful rocket for a new era of human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. With its unprecedented power and capabilities, SLS will launch crews of astronauts in the agency's Orion spacecraft on deep-space missions, including the Journey to Mars.Will SpaceX beat NASA to Mars? ›
Officially, NASA intends to land astronauts on Mars by about 2040, give or take a year or two. Recently, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, told CNBC that the aerospace company will beat NASA to Mars by at least a decade.Will Mars missions be all female? ›
NASA is set to launch a human mission to Mars in the 2030s and a new study suggests it should be an all-female crew because they are more efficient. Researchers from the European Space Agency (ESA) found women use less oxygen, produce less carbon dioxide and require less food than their male counterparts.How long will it take spacex to get to Mars? ›
The program aims to send a million people to Mars, using a thousand Starships sent during a Mars launch window. Proposed journeys would require 80 to 150 days of transit time, with averaging approximately 115 days (for the nine synodic periods occurring between 2020 and 2037).Can you return from Mars? ›
Return to Earth
Spacecraft returning from Mars will have re-entry velocities from 47,000km/h to 54,000km/h, depending on the orbit they use to arrive at Earth. They could slow down into low orbit around Earth to around 28,800km/h before entering our atmosphere but — you guessed it — they'd need extra fuel to do that.
Mars Ice Mapper, 2026
NASA plans to collaborate with the Japanese space agency (JAXA), Canadian Space Agency, and Italian Space Agency to send an orbiting craft to Mars to map out water ice resources on the planet.
Mars 2030 Editor | Download and Play for Free - Epic Games Store.What is 2030 in Mars? ›
MARS 2030 is a virtual reality simulation where players explore the Red Planet and make discoveries across 40 square kilometers of open Martian terrain, accurately-mapped and -modeled using NASA satellite data. Produced in collaboration with NASA.
Who has gone first on Mars? ›
There have also been studies for a possible human mission to Mars, including a landing, but none have been attempted. Soviet Union's Mars 3, which landed in 1971, was the first successful Mars landing. As of 2022, the Soviet Union, United States, and China have conducted Mars landings successfully.Has NASA lost contact with Mars? ›
NASA lost contact with its Mars InSight lander on Sunday (Dec. 18) after the spacecraft failed to respond to communications from its control team. InSight, which has been studying quakes on Mars since 2018, is suffering from power issues due to dust buildup on its solar arrays.Can we plant trees on Mars? ›
Some conditions would make it difficult for plants to grow on Mars. For example, Mars's extreme cold temperatures make life difficult to sustain. Sunlight and heat reaching that planet is much less than what the Earth gets. This is because Mars is about 50 million miles farther away from the sun.Which planet can support life? ›
Among the stunning variety of worlds in our solar system, only Earth is known to host life.Is Mars hot or cold? ›
Temperatures on Mars average about -81 degrees F. However, temperatures range from around -220 degrees F. in the wintertime at the poles, to +70 degrees F. over the lower latitudes in the summer.What was just found on Mars? ›
This Martian river was no joke. NASA's car-sized Perseverance rover parachuted down to a region of Mars called the Jezero Crater, a place planetary scientists suspect once teemed with water.What was found on Mars today? ›
A NASA rover exploring the foothills of a Martian mountain has found rippled rocks, offering scientists the clearest evidence yet of ancient water waves on the Red Planet. Curiosity, a car-size robot that has been rumbling over Mars for a decade, took photos of the peculiar geology in mid-December(opens in a new tab).Can you survive on Mars for 2 minutes? ›
It's relatively cool with an average annual temperature of -60 degrees Celsius, but Mars lacks an Earth-like atmospheric pressure. Upon stepping on Mars' surface, you could probably survive for around two minutes before your organs ruptured.How long is the spacex trip to Mars? ›
The program aims to send a million people to Mars, using a thousand Starships sent during a Mars launch window. Proposed journeys would require 80 to 150 days of transit time, with averaging approximately 115 days (for the nine synodic periods occurring between 2020 and 2037).What is the longest lasting space mission? ›
This archival image taken at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on March 23, 1977, shows engineers preparing the Voyager 2 spacecraft ahead of its launch later that year.
What was the failed mission on Mars? ›
The 1990s weren't particularly good for Mars landings, either. Russia's Mars 96 failed during launch. Happily, Nasa's Sojourner rover touched down in 1996, becoming the first Martian rover success story. Unfortunately, America's Mars Polar Lander failed just before touching down on the planet in 1999.Will humans ever live on Mars? ›
Yet the fact remains that the astronauts will be unable to live on Mars except in very restricted conditions; they will have to stay inside their capsules, inside a base or inside their space suits. Mars is not suited to human visitors.Would your blood boil on Mars? ›
For example, like Earth, Mars has seasons, meaning seasonal changes in its atmosphere and weather. But the Martian atmosphere is much thinner than Earth's, meaning atmospheric pressure is so low that the blood of any unprotected visitor would boil.What would happen if you didn't wear a spacesuit on Mars? ›
If you tried to breathe on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit supplying your oxygen – bad idea – you would die in an instant. You would suffocate, and because of the low atmospheric pressure, your blood would boil, both at about the same time.Who will own Mars? ›
Mars belongs to everybody, according to the Outer Space Treaty, which the US signed back in 1967. The treaty says nobody can own a celestial body.How much is a ticket to Mars? ›
In the past, Mr Musk has estimated that a ticket to Mars on a SpaceX flight would cost between $100,000 and $500,00.How much do astronauts get paid? ›
How much does a Nasa Astronaut make? As of May 19, 2023, the average annual pay for a Nasa Astronaut in the United States is $46,585 a year.How many space missions ended in death? ›
As of March 2021, in-flight accidents have killed 15 astronauts and 4 cosmonauts, in five separate incidents. Three of them had flown above the Kármán line (edge of space), and one was intended to do so. In each case, the entire crew was killed.Will Voyager 1 ever stop? ›
The two Voyager spacecraft could remain in the range of the Deep Space Network through about 2036, depending on how much power the spacecraft still have to transmit a signal back to Earth. Where are Voyager 1 and 2 today?Is Voyager 2 still running? ›
The spacecraft is now in its extended mission of studying interstellar space. It has been operating for 45 years, 9 months and 4 days as of May 25, 2023 UTC [refresh]; as of May 17, 2023, it has reached a distance of 132.93 AU (19.886 billion km; 12.357 billion mi) from Earth.
What is the biggest problem in Mars? ›
Difficulties and hazards include radiation exposure during a trip to Mars and on its surface, toxic soil, low gravity, the isolation that accompanies Mars' distance from Earth, a lack of water, and cold temperatures.What is the biggest threat on Mars? ›
Radiation exposure in space will be a significant and serious hazard during any human expedition to Mars. There are two major sources of natural radiation in deep space: sparse but penetrating galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) and infrequent but very intense solar particle events (SPEs) associated with solar storms.