SETI Institute Principal Investigator
Though both of NASA’s Viking Landers safely made their way to the surface of Mars nearly thirty years ago, the results of their biology experiments remain somewhat mysterious even today. One of their most curious discoveries was the absence of organic material on the surface of the planet, even though trace amounts of such compounds are deposited on Mars through regular meteoroid impacts. To learn more about the intricate chemistry of Mars, including how compounds on its surface are broken down, chemist Richard Quinn is helping to design and test instruments for future missions to Mars. Using the Mars Oxidant Instrument (MOI), scientists will be able to study the planet’s chemistry through a suite of integrated, solid-state sensors. Quinn and his colleagues will field test the MOI technologies in the parched Atacama Desert of Chile. By comparing the MOI’s performance at Atacama sites that range from sterile to viable, these scientists will check the instrument in environments that help define the limits of life on Earth.
Some day, spacecraft may return to Earth with Martian soil samples. But even then, landers that can study the complex chemistry of Mars in its natural environment will have their advantages. During the long spaceflight from Mars to Earth, there may be radical changes to some of the most interesting chemical compounds. “As shown by Viking,” Quinn explains, “they decompose over time, and the proper conditions for transport are unknown and may be impractical.”
- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005