2010 is the biggest year for life on Mars since 1898.  Or 1955 or whenever the last 'life on other planets' craze hit the public.  
But unlike those other times, there is good reason.  This year, over 20 different papers have invoked the chance there may once have been life on Mars in their work.    There is now all kinds of data discussing water on Mars, minerals on Mars and even that the soil might support life.  The Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets alone has 64 papers on Mars so far this year.

The problem - in a time of budget competition and with NASA's cultural influence receding, how will astrobiologists get the chance to look?   The National Research Council will present a list of recommendations for priorities in from 2013 to 2022 so what should astrobiologists request?    A year from now NASA will send Curiosity Rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, to look for carbon.   In 2016 the Trace Gas Orbiter will search for methane.     

It's missing boldness, according to some.  NASA's 'find water' approach is being followed by 'find carbon' but those experiments look for signs of ancient life rather than life.   "It's time to search for life by searching for life," stated astrobiologist Carol Stoker of the NASA Ames Research Center.   

What does that mean?  DNA is far too fragile to have survived but biomarkers might provide information based on signs of the chance of life.   What would those signs be?  Liquid water, energy, nutrients and a benign environment, all of which various studies seem to have found.

Some experiments don't require costly spacecraft, of course.   Researchers recently conducted an experiment in Chile's Atacama Desert where they heated the desert soil to temperatures comparable to those of the 1976 Viking experiments and got the same chlorinated organic compounds found by the landers but dismissed as contaminants.   Other astrobiologists disagreed, saying the desert in Chile is similar but not the same thing as soil on Mars and any compounds on Mars could have been delivered from elsewhere. 

Science that goes well beyond established frontiers is inherently divisive.   Some want to focus searches on ancient life, some on more recent life, some want to send biosensors.    It's a good time for astrobiology but there is no budget to do all of those things so having options but a finite amount of money means they will have to pick carefully.   Here's hoping the bad kind of consensus - voting on a solution no one likes - makes way for the good kind where everyone agrees on the best solution.


Citation: Stoker, C. R., et al. (2010), Habitability of the Phoenix landing site, J. Geophys. Res., 115, E00E20, doi:10.1029/2009JE003421.

Citation: Catling, D. C., M. W. Claire, K. J. Zahnle, R. C. Quinn, B. C. Clark, M. H. Hecht, and S. Kounaves (2010), Atmospheric origins of perchlorate on Mars and in the Atacama, J. Geophys. Res., 115, E00E11, doi:10.1029/2009JE003425.