Dig Deeper, ARDAS, The Search For Life Continues!

September 30, 2019

by Ariel Tokarz

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What do you do when you can’t find something just scratching the surface? Dig deeper, of course!

And that’s exactly what NASA is planning to do: probe feet into the crust of Mars to search for life far below the harsh, uninhabitable surface.

ARDAS: The Searcher for Life

ARDAS (the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies) is a project being undertaken by NASA’s Ames Research Center to search for life beneath Mars’ surface.

The drill is attached to a rover carrying a variety of instruments that can analyze the soil samples that are dug up, searching for potential biosignatures of microbial life.

ARADS is all about preparing NASA to search for life on Mars,

principal investigator Brian Glass said. Development of the ARADS drill and instrument suite is essential, but, according to Glass,

so is figuring out how we actually run the mission.

And that’s why Glass and his team took their rover to Chile.

What’s With this Alien Mineral?

To understand better the hystoric discovery of mineralogist Chi Ma from Caltech and Alan Rubin from the University of Los Angeles, we need to take a step back and see the big small picture of the Wedderburn meteorite. 

Scientists almost literally ground down the small red-and-black spacey rock, to the extent that nowadays, we only have one third of it left, and that’s not much at all.

Since the fifties, everybody sliced and diced the alien leftover, discovering all sorts of elements and minerals that not many people can pronounce and fewer even know exist: schreibersite, taenite, kamacite, troilite (the secret substance that makes trolls, we assume), iron, and gold, and so on. 

You Can Now Add Edscottite to This List

While edscottite is quite extraterrestrial in nature, its name is of Earhtly origin. Ma named the mineral “edscottite” to honor meteorite expert and pioneer cosmochemist Edward Scott.

The alien mineral we now officially call edscottite is a wonder in and out of its own.

According to the researchers, we have never confirmed before in our existence that this particular atomic makeup of an iron carbide mineral existed in nature.

Chile’s Atacama Desert is the most Mars-like place that exists on Earth: dry and – at first glance, uninhabitable.

ARADS has used this location as a testing ground for the last four years, slowly developing the capacity to detect the remains of ancient life or life that exists underground.

The final test this month will determine the ability of the ARADS system to conduct the complex routines across vast distances: can the rover find the information it needs, without continual support from human researchers?

How to Drill on Another World

There are several roadblocks the rover must be able to overcome on its own. The ARADS drill could get stuck going down, frozen in place by the cold Martian temperatures, or jammed in some hard material.

Pressure and motor movements must be continuously monitored and interpreted by the drill. As it goes, the rover will look for the easiest, and most scientifically interesting, places to dig. Plus it must know how and when to pull back and try again.

All in all, the ARADS drill is rather good at this. According to Thomas Stucky, the sample-handling software lead for the project; it is able to go from dirt to comprehensive data on its own.

All the scientists have to do is point the rover where it needs to dig, tell the drill how deep to go, and the drill will figure out the rest.

This is especially helpful when there’s a nearly twenty-minute delay in communication between scientists on Earth and the rover on Mars.

Looking for Ice – As Well as Life

What else can you do with space drills? If you’re a part of the Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge – a yearly, college-level research project, your space drill is looking for water. Student teams build massive drills similar to the ARADS one.

Their goal is to identify, map, and drill through layers of rock and dirt before extracting and purifying water from large blocks of ice.

According to Shelley Spears, the National Institute of Aerospace’s director of educational outreach, this is an occasion for students to be

at the forefront of one of the most critical [in space resource utilization] ISRU solutions needed for future human space exploration.

ARDAS and the Search for Life: What Does the Future Hold?

When we return to the moon and go on to Mars, we’re going to need water to survive. While it could be carried from Earth, that would be a large and expensive endeavor.

And since large veins of water ice likely exist on the moon and Mars, the ability to make use of such resources is ideal. Besides, life on Mars, like the researchers in the Atacama desert say, like life anywhere else, would need some amount of water to survive.

Where better to search for our galactic neighbors than beneath the surface, where ice and life might dwell?

Further reading on ARDAS and the Search for Life

NASA.gov. NASA is Testing a Drill to Search for Life on Mars – On Its Own. [https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/ARADS-drill]

NASA.gov. NASA and Partner Announce Finalists in the 2019 Mars Ice Challenge. [https://www.nasa.gov/feature/langley/nasa-and-partner-announce-finalists-in-the-2019-mars-ice-challenge]

Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge [http://specialedition.rascal.nianet.org/]

Photos courtesy of

NASA

Hi, I’m Liz

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