Mars photo courtesy of NASA

Because of budget constraints, the Obama administration wants to back out of a 2016 Mars expedition with Europe in search of soil and rock samples from the Red Planet.

That’s fine with NASA.  It’s eager to go it alone and is putting together a faster and more economical plan to learning if there is or was life on Mars.

Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters says, “Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate goal.”

John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who flew five times on the space shuttles, feels a sense of urgency about getting on the fast track to Mars.  He said, “I’m hoping that in this process some ideas emerge—and if they don’t, I’m going to throw some in—to try and look at if there are things we can do in the near-term that will shortcut this long search.”

Since the first Viking robots failed to find life on the planet in 1976, the assumption has been that the planet is dry, cold and sterile.  NASA isn’t buying that conclusion, partly because analysis from one of the experiments is still ongoing today with some scientists asserting that the Vikings had indeed found life.

More recent probes detected methane gas in the atmosphere, which could be an indication of microbial life.  Additionally, space probes launched over the last 15 years are providing mounting evidence that Mars wasn’t always the cold desert it is today.

And finally, it’s possible the planet has a habitable environment right now in places like Newton Crater, one of several sites that my have melted briny underground water in the summer months.

Some answers may be forthcoming way before 2016.  In August, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory with its sophisticated rover named Curiosity will land in Gale Crater in search of places that would be suitable for life as we know it.

Whatever is or isn’t found, the results of Curiosity’s landing will have a considerable impact on NASA’s future plans for missions to Mars.

reported by Discovery News     April 16, 2012  and other sources


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