Marswhelmed

So, the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” has discovered evidence that, about three billion years ago, the environment on the planet Mars could have supported Earth-like microbial life. Some news outlets (including the MSL Twitter feed) are billing this discovery as the accomplishment of Curiosity’s mission.

I have a confession to make.

I don’t really find this discovery all that exciting.

The MSL team’s discovery is a confirmation of a long-expected hypothesis. (Indeed, with the number of planetary environments out there, it would be statistically silly to think that Earth is the only life-supporting place!) It’s valuable to know, and it’s important to the scientific method to rack up such confirmations even when we’re as sure as we can be, but it doesn’t exactly have the same allure as striking out into the unknown. I think the spirit of exploration is important to maintain in our space programs, because brand-new missions and discoveries are what keeps space exploration in the public eye. After all, a recent study shows that not only do most Americans want to see exploring Mars as a national priority, but most Americans want to see a human mission to Mars and three-quarters of Americans want to see the NASA budget doubled. I am confident that the dramatic landing of the Curiosity rover, with its brand-new mission architecture, has something to do with that enthusiasm.

There’s also something I find slightly foreboding about Curiosity’s confirmation. In 2011, the National Research Council’s Planetary Sciences Decal Survey of Solar System exploration listed and prioritized the objectives of our planetary science program for 2013 through 2022. This is a study done every ten years to identify which of the flagship-sized missions NASA should fund, design, and launch in the coming decade. First on the list for 2013-2022: a mission to return samples of Martian rock and soil to Earth. The announced “Mars 2020″ rover is in line with that objective.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the conclusion sentence of scientific findings from a Mars sample return mission:

Chemicals and minerals present on the surface of Mars indicate that ancient Mars may have included wet environments able to support Earth-like microbial life.

In other words, I don’t think a Mars sample return mission will give us any dramatically new information that we didn’t already have from MSL, MER, MRO, or any of the Martian samples we already have. See what’s got me worried? I don’t think we’re going to actually discover life – in fact, I would be very surprised if the 2020 rover included any instruments actually capable of recognizing a Martian if it walked right up, poked the rover with a Martian stick, and walked away. (Curiosity doesn’t!) I am afraid that we will put this rover on the Red Planet in 2020, cache a sample, retrieve the sample in 2030, and the public response will be, “wait a minute, we spent two decades confirming what we already knew in 2013? Come on, space program…where’s my jetpack?”

A Mars sample return mission would be a triumph…for the niche sub-field of Martian geochemistry. I don’t think it would have the sort of broad scientific and public impact that we should expect from a flagship-scale mission. Basic research science plods along, making incremental improvements in understanding and slow-but-steady progress. NASA should be sticking its neck out, thinking big, and going for the most challenging – and rewarding – missions. Instead of looking for environments that might have been habitable three billion years ago, we should be looking for actual life.

You see, even before MSL’s discovery, we already knew of the existence of a watery, potentially life-supporting environment. Jupiter’s moon Europa has an icy crust with a subsurface water ocean beneath. The ocean is warm enough to be liquid, because of the energy input from Jupiter’s tides. And scientists have found that that ocean contains lots of salts and minerals – and even organic (carbon-containing) compounds. Liquid water, energy sources, and chemical building blocks: everything an Earth-like life form needs! The main difference between Europa and Mars is that, while we’ve been able to observe the desolation of the Martian surface for decades and know that we could only expect to find evidence of ancient microbes, we have no idea what’s under the Europan ice sheet. It could be nothing…but it could also be life as rich and complex as what we find, on Earth, under Antarctic ice, in sealed cave systems, or around hydrothermal vents. Unlike Mars, where we have been forming preliminary conclusions for years, we won’t know until we get something under that ice layer. That’s the kind of exciting exploration work that I want to see from my NASA flagship missions.

The Decadal Survey did recognize the potential for alien life on Europa. Its executive summary says that “the second highest priority Flagship mission for the decade 2013-2022 is the Jupiter Europa Orbiter” but notes that “that both a decrease in mission scope and an increase in NASA’s planetary budget are necessary” to fly a mission to Europa. Personally, I’d prefer to discover alien creatures within my lifetime…but I don’t make policy or control the purse-strings. So, instead, off to Mars we’ll go again.

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