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Europe is Only Game in Town as ESA Agrees to Send Arrays to Mars while Budget Cuts Put US Mission in Doubt


The European Space Agency has approved a mission that will send microarrays on a life-detection mission to Mars in 2011, quelling any doubts that the technology wouldn't make it into space, according to an ESA spokesperson.

Pietro Baglioni, an ESA spokesperson, told BioArray News this week that the mission, called ExoMars, was approved during an ESA ministerial meeting in December, and that the project is now moving forward.

Baglioni said the mission, which calls for an unmanned rover to search the surface of Mars for biotic life or abiotic chemistry, is now undergoing a spacecraft composite requirement review, and must pass through another review phase before ESA can proceed to manufacturing, testing, and qualifying the rover for launch in five years.

Baglioni said that ESA has committed €650 million ($774 million) to support the ExoMars mission, and that it will launch from Russia's Soyuz station in French Guyana. He added that the 2011 date is tentative, and that there is the possibility the mission could be delayed to 2013.

"We proposed this technology to ESA in 1999, so the last couple of years we've had our fingers crossed."

ESA's decision to approve ExoMars validates the work done by the team that created the microarray technology. Led by scientists at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, the team had pinned the future of its life-detection arrays on future missions to Mars from both ESA and NASA. However, in light of recent budget cuts, NASA's commitment is in doubt.

"We proposed this technology to ESA in 1999, so the last couple of years we've had our fingers crossed," said Carnegie scientist Andrew Steele, who has led a cross-Atlantic team in developing the array technology.

As recently as October 2005, the future of ExoMars was unclear. An ESA spokesperson told BioArray News at the time that ExoMars was "still on the drawing board" (see BAN 10/26/2005).

Steele said that a separate NASA mission that was supposed to have utilized array technology, called the Astrobiology Field Laboratory, still faces an uncertain future.

"All bets are off," Steele said. Due to cuts in NASA's 2006-2007 budget, which reduced support for the mission by half, Steele said its prospects were in doubt.

"Any [NASA] mission after '09 is up in the air, and Europe is the only game in town at the moment," he said. "NASA supported it to the point that it was ready to be proposed for a mission and now the funding is going away," said Steele.

Though NASA did not break out numbers for the AFL in its 2007 budget — it is a "discovery-driven" project and therefore seen as optional — the agency did disclose that it plans to increase the budget for the Solar System Exploration program, which funds AFL, by 1.7 percent in 2007, allotting $1.6 billion for the program.

However, NASA did acknowledge that 2007 budget "includes a reduction in astrobiology research and some grant funding." Carl Pilcher, a senior scientist for Astrobiology at NASA, confirmed that the proposed 2007 budget will cut funding for astrobiology by half compared to 2006 levels. Still, Pilcher said that "no individual investigator has been told what effect the budget cut will have on them." He declined to discuss the future of the astrobiology Field Lab, except to say he believes the "entire next decade of the Mars program is being replanned."

Michael New, a NASA astrobiologist, told BioArray News in October that the agency has been "pre-pre-pre-considering" the AFL mission, but that it would be approved "probably no earlier" than 2009. "These things usually need a significant amount of lead time," New said.

New also said that NASA had been providing Steele's group with $1 million in funding annually. Steele did say that his group will have the option to ask for additional funding in the future, but there are "no guarantees" they will receive it.

Life Marker Chip

While the NASA mission is in doubt, Steele said that his group is moving forward with designs for the ExoMars mission in 2011. Steele's team, as well as his British counterparts headed by investigator Mark Sims at the Space Research Center at the UK's University of Leicester, must deliver the technology to the ESA no later than one year before launch.

Steele and the rest of the team have been making annual trips to the Norwegian island of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean to test the viability of the technology in a Martian-like environment.

Last September, the mission, called the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition, successfully used protein arrays to detect microbiotic life in the ice-filled heat vents of an ancient volcano (see BAN 10/26/2005).

The chip developed for ExoMars, called the Life Marker Chip, is a microfluidic array comprising between 40 and 50 probes that target abiotic chemistry, including amino acids, individual molecular bases, and carboxylic acids, as well as double-stranded DNA, simple peptides, and spacecraft contaminants, like Staphylococcus.

The microfluidic chip will be used in conjunction with other instruments, and Steele predicts it may only be used 10 to 15 times during the mission.

"The idea is to fill a gap in current instrumentation. If you take every kind of spectroscopy, you can get indicative information, but not specific information," Steele explained.

"The philosophy of life detection on a mission like this is to use many technologies."

According to Steele, all data gathered by the rover will be transmitted back to Earth via a central communication device.

Steele said that the chip and its accompanying system use a mix of in-house technology and technology contributed by Caliper Life Sciences and Charles River Labs. He added that there have been some discussions with Affymetrix to add microarrays to detect contaminants and hybridizable DNA to the ExoMars mission.

Whether ExoMars will actually find anything is another debate. But Steele said he is hopeful the mission will turn up with something.

"Don't forget, Earth and Mars have been swapping spit for about 4 billion years, so it's important to consider the possibility that Earth life found a niche, however briefly, on the Martian surface," Steele said.

— Justin Petrone ([email protected])

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