Expert Report

An Astrobiology Strategy for the Exploration of Mars (2007)

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In the last decade, robotic missions to Mars have discovered strong evidence of a watery past and the possibility of atmospheric methane. In order to take advantage of these new breakthroughs, NASA's Science Mission Directorate requested development of an updated integrated astrobiology strategy for Mars exploration. The focus of the program continues to be the search for past or present life on Mars. Samples should be taken on Mars and transported back to Earth for thorough scientific investigation. A foundation of data already exists to identify appropriate sites for landing and collection, but long-term development of technology must take place in order to gain access to promising sites at high altitudes or in the polar regions.

Key Messages

  • At the same time, the astrobiological science goals can best be addressed by an implementation that allows researchers to address increasingly focused questions that relate to astrobiology goals in particular.
  • Identification of appropriate landing sites for detailed analysis (whether in situ or by sample return) can be done with the data sets now available or imminently available from currently active missions.
  • Sample return should be seen as a program that NASA and the Mars science community have already embarked upon rather than as a single, highly complex, costly, and risky mission that is to occur at some future time.
  • The desire to visit and sample the highest-priority astrobiological sites requires that future surface missions to Mars take the necessary and appropriate planetary protection measures.
  • The greatest advance in understanding Mars, from both an astrobiology and a more general scientific perspective, will come about from laboratory studies conducted on samples of Mars returned to Earth.
  • The scientific study of Mars, including return to Earth of astrobiologically valuable samples that can be used to address the questions being asked today, can be done with robotic missions.
  • The search for evidence of past or present life, as well as determination of the planetary context that creates habitable environments, is a compelling primary focus for NASA's Mars Exploration Program.
  • The search for life and understanding the broad planetary context for martian habitability will require a broad, multidisciplinary approach to Mars exploration.
  • The very successful intellectual approach of follow the water should be expanded to include follow the carbon, along with other key biologically relevant elements.