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New Life Test for Mars

on September 22, 2007

ScienceDaily: “Life On Mars ‘Pregnancy Test’ Successfully Launched

Is Mars pregnant? That’s the question the Search for “Terrestrial” Intelligence has repeatedly run into this week, as last Friday saw the successful launch of “[k]ey components of a new approach to discover life on Mars”—informally dubbed the Mars “pregnancy test” and formally called the Life Marker Chip (LMC) experiment. A press release from LMC consortium member Carnegie Institution of Washington (itself adapted from a release by consortium member Cranfield University) tells their side of the story:

In fact, the current phase of the project (and the result of Friday’s launch) is a little closer to home.

The new approach is based on technology similar to that used in pregnancy test kits. The so-called immunoassays are embodied in the [...] experiment, which has the potential to detect trace levels of biomarkers in the Martian environment. Biomarkers are molecular fingerprints that indicate if life currently is, or ever was, present on Mars.

Preparing a multimillion-dollar (we presume) equivalent of a pregnancy test in the Martian soil sounds so ridiculous that we’ve got to wonder whether they’re serious!

In fact, the current phase of the project (and the result of Friday’s launch) is a little closer to home. Right now, the goal is to test whether “key molecular components to be used in the LMC technology can survive the rigors of space.”

The eventual goal of the consortium, which includes organizations in Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., and the U.S., is to include the LMC experiment in the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover mission, slated for a 2013 launch. Dr. Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, project head, described the mission as being an “important stepping stone in our ultimate goal of putting a LMC experiment on the surface of Mars and using it to search for evidence of Life.”

The mission is still more than five years away (at least), and the LMC experiment may not be included. But we’re going to go out on a limb and make a prediction early: if the LMC components reach Mars and the experiment takes place, scientists won’t find any evidence of life*—but, in face of that absence, they will still find something to keep them hopeful, create media hubbub, and spur on another decade (at least!) of continued infatuation with the possibility of Martian life.

*Now, we recognize the possibility that earth life could have been transported to Mars. For example, something called “solar wind” could take spores from earth to Mars.

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