Advancing the Search for Life on Mars Through Robotic Exploration and Field Analogue Research

I propose to advance the search for life on Mars by addressing two key issues:

(1) The microbiology of ground ice in the Antarctic Dry Valleys as an analogue to ground ice on Mars; and

(2) A new mission concept for the robotic exploration of Mars that would allow to drill to a depth of several meters and search for life in ground ice. Dry permafrost above ice-cemented ground, and regolith-atmosphere exchange of water dominated by vapor diffusion is the norm on Mars but is rare on Earth, and it is only found in places like University Valley in the upper elevations of the Dry Valleys in Antarctica. As such University Valley represents a unique field site where we can study possible life processes in Mars analogue ground ice, as well as the preservation of biomarkers such as complex biomolecules that could be targeted in future life detection missions.

I will also conduct a concept study to implement a deep drill in the Space X Dragon capsule. Dragon has a capability of deliver significant payloads (more than hundreds of kilograms) to Mars. In collaboration with a NASA team, I will define the science objective for a Dragon Drill mission that focuses on the search for life. Based on this, we will define the drill and sampling systems by considering:

(1) the drilling mechanism based on five proven NASA Ames deep-drill designs,

(2) power supply,

(3) mechanism to clear cuttings,

(4) supporting science payload,

(5) supporting engineering payload. We will then develop an implementation and configuration plan for placing the drill payload in the Dragon capsule. The payload concepts will incorporate mass and power estimates, stress models, and estimated costs. Finally we will develop a concept for surface and subsurface operations on Mars during a deep-drilling mission, including accessing the ground through the lander, surface and subsurface science activities, compliance with planetary protection protocols, relevance to present and future missions, and implications for the future robotic and human exploration of Mars.