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Mars Analog Rio Tinto Experiment (MARTE)

A robotic drilling mission to search for subsurface life on Mars.

Future applications for technology demonstrated on MARTE include Mars resource exploration and utilization. Exploration for Martian resources will require drilling. Deep drilling into the Mars subsurface could gain direct access to liquid water, a key resource for Mars exploration. Liquid water can be used to make rocket propellants, fuel cells, life support consumables, and a myriad of manufactured products.

Research Overview
Robotic drill
MARTE is a project that is developing drilling, sample handling, and instrument technologies relevant to searching for life in the Martian subsurface, and demonstrating them in a field test at a site with a Mars-analog subsurface biosphere on Earth. The drilling system is being developed by Honeybee robotics for future use on Mars. The drill brings to the surface 25 cm core segments at 2.5 cm diameter while operating on low power without the use of drilling fluids. An automated Core and Sample Handling facility will extract the cores from the drill and pass them to a suite of instruments on a lander platform. Cores are examined by remote sensing instruments including a panoramic context imager, microscopic imager, and a visible-near infrared hyperspectral imager.

Left: The robotic drill brings core segments to the surface.

A sterile swab from each core is examined using ATP luminometry for a quick-look indication of the presence of living organisms. Logging instruments deployed in the borehole include a camera, magnetic susceptibility meter, and raman spectrometer. A science team located at a remote operations center analyzes the data from the logging instruments and selects core locations to extract subsamples with a life detection instrument located onboard the lander. Once subsample locations are chosen, a subsection of core is cut out, crushed, and then placed into the SOLID prototype life detection instrument for further processing.

SOLID is a portable automated instrument that uses DNA and protein microarray technology to detect microorganisms as well as their metabolic products. The instrument is capable of sensing many kinds of biochemical compounds (nucleic acids, proteins, polysaccharides, etc) using microarrays printed with DNA, antibodies or any other protein or molecule able to recognize and bind specifically to them.

A Mars drilling mission simulation is planned for June 2005 which includes interpretation of drill mission results by a remote science team in a blind test.

The MARTE robotic drilling mission is augmented by additional “ground truth” with a team in the field utilizing more conventional methods for drilling, sample handling, and laboratory analysis to explore for a subsurface biosphere at the field site. This field experiment serves as a good analog for the activities of a human crew on Mars drilling in search of a subsurface biosphere. The MARTE project achieves exploration of an uncharacterized underground ecosystem of key relevance to Astrobiology and the search for life on Mars, while also developing and demonstrating technology needed in the next phase of Mars exploration.

Drill capabilites
The discovery of near surface ground ice by the Mars Odyssey mission and the abundant evidence of recent Gulley features observed by the Mars Global Surveyor mission support longstanding theoretical arguments for subsurface liquid water on Mars. Implementing the Mars program goal to search for life points to drilling on Mars to reach liquid water in order to collect samples and analyze them with instrumentation to detect in situ organisms and biomarker compounds. Searching for life in the subsurface of Mars will require drilling, sample extraction and handling, and new technologies to find and identify biomarker compounds in the search for living organisms.

Left: Testing the drill and core-processing capabilities.