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A Mission Simulating the Search for Life on Mars with Automated Drilling, Sample Handling, and Life Detection Instruments Performed in the Hyperarid Core of the Atacama Desert, Chile


Stoker, Carol R; Glass, Brian J; Stucky, Thomas R; Dave, Arwen I; Kobayashi, Linda T; Quinn, Richard C; Moreno-Paz, Mercedes; Sánchez-García, Laura; Mora, Maria F; Kehl, Florian; Parro, Víctor; Willis, Peter A; Davila, Alfonso; Noe Dobrea, Eldar; Rask, Jon C; Ricardo, Daniel (2023). A Mission Simulating the Search for Life on Mars with Automated Drilling, Sample Handling, and Life Detection Instruments Performed in the Hyperarid Core of the Atacama Desert, Chile. Astrobiology, 23(12):1284-1302.

Abstract

We report on a field demonstration of a rover-based drilling mission to search for biomolecular evidence of life in the arid core of the Atacama Desert, Chile. The KREX2 rover carried the Honeybee Robotics 1 m depth The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploration of New Terrains (TRIDENT) drill and a robotic arm with scoop that delivered subsurface fines to three flight prototype instruments: (1) The Signs of Life Detector (SOLID), a protein and biomolecule analyzer based on fluorescence sandwich microarray immunoassay; (2) the Planetary In Situ Capillary Electrophoresis System (PISCES), an amino acid analyzer based on subcritical water extraction coupled to microchip electrophoresis analysis; and (3) a Wet Chemistry Laboratory cell to measure soluble ions using ion selective electrodes and chronopotentiometry. A California-based science team selected and directed drilling and sampling of three sites separated by hundreds of meters that included a light-toned basin area showing evidence of aqueous activity surrounded by a rocky desert pavement. Biosignatures were detected in basin samples collected at depths ranging from 20 to 80 cm but were not detected in the surrounding area. Subsurface stratigraphy of the units drilled was interpreted from drill sensor data as fine-scale layers of sand/clay sediments interspersed with layers of harder material in the basins and a uniform subsurface composed of course-to-fine sand in the surroundings. The mission timeline and number of commands sent to accomplish each activity were tracked. The deepest sample collected (80 cm) required 55 commands, including drilling and delivery to three instruments. Elapsed time required for drilling and sample handling was less than 3 hours to collect sample from 72 cm depth, including time devoted to recovery from a jammed drill. The experiment demonstrated drilling, sample transfer technologies, and instruments that accomplished successful detection of biomolecular evidence of life in one of the most biologically sparse environments on Earth.

Abstract

We report on a field demonstration of a rover-based drilling mission to search for biomolecular evidence of life in the arid core of the Atacama Desert, Chile. The KREX2 rover carried the Honeybee Robotics 1 m depth The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploration of New Terrains (TRIDENT) drill and a robotic arm with scoop that delivered subsurface fines to three flight prototype instruments: (1) The Signs of Life Detector (SOLID), a protein and biomolecule analyzer based on fluorescence sandwich microarray immunoassay; (2) the Planetary In Situ Capillary Electrophoresis System (PISCES), an amino acid analyzer based on subcritical water extraction coupled to microchip electrophoresis analysis; and (3) a Wet Chemistry Laboratory cell to measure soluble ions using ion selective electrodes and chronopotentiometry. A California-based science team selected and directed drilling and sampling of three sites separated by hundreds of meters that included a light-toned basin area showing evidence of aqueous activity surrounded by a rocky desert pavement. Biosignatures were detected in basin samples collected at depths ranging from 20 to 80 cm but were not detected in the surrounding area. Subsurface stratigraphy of the units drilled was interpreted from drill sensor data as fine-scale layers of sand/clay sediments interspersed with layers of harder material in the basins and a uniform subsurface composed of course-to-fine sand in the surroundings. The mission timeline and number of commands sent to accomplish each activity were tracked. The deepest sample collected (80 cm) required 55 commands, including drilling and delivery to three instruments. Elapsed time required for drilling and sample handling was less than 3 hours to collect sample from 72 cm depth, including time devoted to recovery from a jammed drill. The experiment demonstrated drilling, sample transfer technologies, and instruments that accomplished successful detection of biomolecular evidence of life in one of the most biologically sparse environments on Earth.

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Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Institute for Computational Science
04 Faculty of Medicine > Institute of Anatomy
Dewey Decimal Classification:530 Physics
570 Life sciences; biology
610 Medicine & health
Scopus Subject Areas:Life Sciences > Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
Physical Sciences > Space and Planetary Science
Uncontrolled Keywords:Space and Planetary Science, Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
Language:English
Date:1 December 2023
Deposited On:02 Feb 2024 17:20
Last Modified:30 Apr 2024 01:49
Publisher:Mary Ann Liebert
ISSN:1557-8070
OA Status:Hybrid
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2022.0055
PubMed ID:37856168
  • Content: Published Version
  • Language: English
  • Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)