Blasting Mars with Missiles Is the Latest Hope for Finding Martian Life

There's a plan to send a fleet of probes to burrow deep under the Martian surface.

Apr 24 2014, 4:55pm
Image: Explore Mars

There’s a plan to drop bunker busters on Mars—in an attempt to find whatever life might still exist underground. 

The Exolance mission, being planned by Explore Mars, a nonprofit group that supports manned missions to Mars, calls for launching a series of small bunker buster probes attached with life-detecting payloads deep into the Martian surface. Testing is supposed to start on Earth later this year, according to group president Artemis Westenberg, who told me about the project at the group’s Humans to Mars conference in Washington, DC earlier this week.

Like most of these sorts of projects, the team is going to need to find money to make the project a reality, but it plans on proving the technology on Earth and Westenberg says that the team won't need "millions of dollars" in order to do it.

In 1976, Viking I and II, the very first landers on Mars, analyzed Martian soil in an attempt to find life on the planet. Whether they did or not remains controversial—something was detected, but most people think that the probes were improperly cleaned on Earth, meaning the tests were contaminated. The Curiosity Rover doesn’t have the capability of burrowing under the Martian surface to look for life, which is why Exolance is needed, Westenberg said.

"When Viking landed and did its tests, it just did three of them. If you test something in a lab, you test it a thousand times. We were also testing it the way we thought life was. It was 1976—we believed that in order for there to be life, there has to be sunlight," she said. "Now, we know there’s chemosynthesis. Who knows what more there is?"

Scientists such as James Green, acting director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, believe that if there’s life on Mars, it’s under the surface.

“We need our next mission to be able to drill and sample cores,” Green said at the conference. “We believe Mars has a lot of underground water resources. We’re just learning about them now and where they might be.”

Green said he believes that there is other life in the solar system and that, if it exists, it’s probably on Mars.

“I believe life is here … I believe the question [of whether there is alien life] will be answered within our solar system, and Mars, which is a special, special planet, is number one on my list,” he said. 

That’s where the Exolance mission comes in. Though NASA has a plan to send yet another rover to Mars by 2020, Exolance should be able to be launched earlier. According to Westenberg, the plan calls for “several probes to be launched into the surface.”

“They will be small, they will have life detection tests, and they will send back information to one of the satellites hanging over Mars,” she said. “Curiosity can only go down a little, this can go deeper. They can go to many places because they’re small, and you can send a swarm of them. They can get into rocks that are buried deep.”

The probes tentatively look like this:

Image: Explore Mars

The group plans to begin testing the technology in the Mojave Desert later this year. The goal is to create something that is both small enough and affordable enough to be able to be put on several planned flights to Mars. The bunker buster technology “is something we know how to do very well," said Joe Cassady, an executive at Aerojet Rocketdyne, a commercial space company that’s helping to develop the program.

“We deploy it, it’s passive, and it has no propulsion of its own,” he said. “We take advantage of its kinetic energy, pop off the main spacecraft and bury ourselves into Mars. It’s important to do this repeatedly, sustainably, and affordably.”

Right now, it's probably a long shot that this thing ever happens, but the plan to wage war on the Martian surface is serious—it just needs funding.