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Despite Progress and Money, NASA and ESA Not Yet Committed to Bringing Chips to Mars


Earlier this month, a team of researchers led by Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institute of Washington returned from Svalbard, a Norwegian island located north of the Arctic Circle, where they managed to identify microbial organisms in ice-filled heat vents inside a volcano on the island using protein array technology.

The mission, called the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition, or AMASE, selected Svalbard, which is considered to be one of the few places on Earth analogous to Mars, to prepare the array technology for inclusion in future life- detection missions to the Red Planet. And Steele said the technology is progressing.

"We use several instruments to test. We tested protein arrays last year and this year. We tested an instrument to look at protein arrays in an automated fashion this year, which I can't say too much about at the moment. Last year it all came together and made sense," Steele said.

However, though Steele's AMASE team is proceeding as if its arrays will be accepted for a life-detection mission, when and where that mission will lift off from is uncertain.

Steele said that while the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency has provided part of AMASE's annual budget, along with the Carnegie Institute, it has yet to commit to a life-detection mission on Mars.

"[NASA had] planned a mission. It was initially penciled in for 2013, but NASA planning for the next decade is unsure," Steele said.

"NASA has scoped out a mission called the Astrobiology Field Laboratory for life detection, but has not been decided if or when it will fly."

"It's not even for granted that it will happen. It is something that is being proposed with a full package of all other missions for the ESA."

Michael New, a NASA astrobiologist, told BioArray News last week that the agency has been providing Steele's group with $1 million in funding annually. But even though AMASE is moving forward with developing its protein chips for life detection, New said that the details on a NASA mission to Mars remain sketchy at best.

"There is a mission that we are pre-pre-pre-considering called [Astrobiology Field Laboratory] which is penciled in for the 2016 timeframe," New said. "It will be a follow-up to the Mars Science Laboratory [a mission scheduled to possibly launch in 2009] to detect organic carbon on Mars."

According to New, while Steele is busy preparing his arrays for the Martian climate, the reality is that if NASA decides to go ahead with the mission, Steele is not likely to know for sure until 2009.

"AFL will be approved probably no earlier than 2009. These things usually need a significant amount of lead time," New said.

That's not to say that putting biochips in space isn't among NASA's objectives for the coming decade. New said that the agency is funding other biochip projects, including LOCAD, or the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development project, based at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Lisa Monaco, a scientist involved with LOCAD who has also worked with Steele's group, said that her team is developing microfluidics-based applications that may be used in space for life detection or "planetary protection" — checking to see if humans have introduced microbial organisms to visited planets.

One of these applications, a miniaturized test for endotoxins, based on the immune system of a horseshoe crab and formatted onto a microfluidic chip with an accompanying assay, will be sent to the International Space Station next year.

The chip was developed by Norman Wainwright, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and director of R&D at Charles River Labs.

Wainwright told BioArray News last week that NASA "is interested in using this device for both life detection and planetary protection." Monaco and Wainwright also said that the instrument was tested at Svalbard by Steele's group in a previous AMASE mission before it was accepted for use in the ISS by NASA.

ESA to Decide in December

One space agency that Steele said has committed to using his array-based detection system, called Modular Assays for Solar System Exploration, or MASSE, is the European Space Agency, which showed its appetite for Mars exploration by launching its Mars Express orbiter in 2003.

"We have actually successfully competed to be aboard their life-detection mission, which is called ExoMars, which is going to fly in 2011. [We] competed about a year and a half ago," Steele said.

However, while Steele is confident that MASSE will go to Mars with ExoMars in 2011, Franco Bonacina, a spokesperson for ESA, told BioArray News last week that the future of the mission is uncertain.

Bonacina said ExoMars is "an unmanned mission which is still on the drawing board" and confirmed that "2011 is the date that we have in mind." He added that the fate of ExoMars will be decided when the ESA meets in December in Berlin.

"We have to submit it to the council of the European Space Agency at [the] ministerial level on the 5th and the 6th of December," Bonacina said. "It's not even for granted that it will happen. It is something that is being proposed with a full package of all other missions for the ESA."

Bonacina said that the envisioned ExoMars would cost ESA approximately €580 million to €590 million ($700 million to $710 million) between 2006 and 2011. He said further details of the mission would be made available to the public in mid-November.

Looking Forward

While NASA and ESA deliberate on whether or not Steele's life-detection technology will see the surface of Mars, Steele is already busy planning next year's expedition to Svalbard.

"We have a couple of proposals and we are waiting to hear on them," Steele said. Steele added that he is also developing a chip that would monitor "organisms of interest to astronaut health, astronaut environmental monitoring, [and offer] advanced life support monitoring for Mars and moon missions."

"We are involved in designing the next generation of space suits to maybe have them take microarrays actually integrated into the space suits," Steele said.

As for NASA, Steele said that AMASE will just have to play it by ear until the space agency fleshes out its plans for the next 15 years.

"NASA is undergoing complete reorganization due to the moon and Mars initiatives," Steele said. "[This] is obviously good for us in the long run, but until [the] dust settles we won't really know when the next NASA [Mars] mission is."

"It will probably be somewhere between 2013 and 2018. Whether that means that we go there and look for [life in] a robotic fashion with a rover or that we bring a sample back to Earth and use technology at biosafety level to do detection — somewhere along the line I hope this technology to be part of it."

— Justin Petrone ([email protected])

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