Four billion years ago, Mars had abundant water and a substantial atmosphere. Life could have evolved there, but its reign would have been short: Mars soon lost most of its air and water to space. Scientists are planning the next steps to determine if life ever existed on the now Red Planet.
The next-generation of Mars rovers would be based on the Curiosity rover — the centerpiece of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission — but would have upgraded instruments and be capable of storing returnable core samples of Mars soil.
To detect life on Mars, NASA could pursue three strategies. A robot probe could conduct tests on the Martian surface, then beam the results back to Earth (“in situ” investigation). Second, a sample-return mission could launch a bit of Mars soil back to Earth on a return rocket for study. The third option would be for humans to go to Mars in person.
MIT’s Chris Carr designed a DNA-sequencing microchip capable of detecting DNA and RNA less than a million years old. The device, called SETG (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes), would have to isolate biological material, amplify and detect DNA and then sequence it. Carr hopes to have this device ready for a Mars lander that could launch in 2020.