ExoLance: Shooting Darts at Mars to Find Life

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To find life on Mars, some scientists believe you might want to look underground for microbes that may be hiding from the harsh radiation that bathes the red planet’s surface. Various NASA rovers have scraped away a few inches at a time, but the real paydirt may lie a meter or two below the surface.

New concepts for Mars-probing rovers would use Martian wind to move around the planet. James Williams gets a look at two of the designs.
NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (Cornell University), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute, Boulder)

That’s too deep for existing instruments, so a team of space enthusiasts has launched a more ambitious idea: dropping arrow-like probes from the Martian atmosphere to pierce the soil like bunker-busting bug catchers.

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The “ExoLance” project aims to drop ground-penetrating devices, each of which would carry a small chemical sampling test to find signs of life.

“One of the benefits of doing this mission is that there is less engineering,” said Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, a non-profit space advocacy group pushing the idea. “With penetrators we can engineer them to get what we want, and send it back to an orbiter. We can theoretically check out more than one site at a time. We could drop five or six, which increases the chances of finding something.”

Each penetrator would have a tail section sticking above the surface with an antennae sending data back to the lander, while a second section would detach and burrow into the ground in search of life.

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Explore Mars is launching a crowd-funding effort this month, as well as announcing a corporate and academic partner at a July 31 event at American University in Washington, DC.

The goal is to begin engineering and testing of the small, lightweight “arrows” in the Mojave Desert, which has some of the same soil and rock characteristics as Mars, explained Carberry.

“We want to show that we can get to the proper depth, that it would survive the force of the impact and that we could have a science payload on this that could communicate back,” he said. “We might also be proven wrong.”