Carberry says the idea is to piggyback off a future Mars mission.
“Most landers have ballast that they get rid of. The ExoLance would not be terribly expensive and won’t have a lot of mass to it.”
The idea is intriguing, according to one scientist, but still has a few things to work out. For one, making sure the device doesn’t crash on impact, says Chris Carr, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences who works on ways to detect life on other planets.
“The (NASA) Mars program has been pretty risk-averse,” Carr said, “and so it is worth looking at higher risk alternatives. Ultimately when you want to decide do you want to spend the money you are going to make a decision about likelihood for success. There are some hurdles to ExoLance, but it seems like a reasonable concept to explore at this stage of the game.”
Carr noted that NASA tried to do something similar back in 1999 during the “Deep Space 2” mission to Mars, but the penetrators failed to establish radio contact after hitting the Martian surface. NASA wasn't able to determine whether the batteries, radio or the device itself failed on impact.
Despite the odds of failure, another mission like ExoLance might be worth it, Carr said. That’s because the subsurface is a good place for microbes to thrives, especially in regions where there may be patches of frozen water.
“It’s definitely the most promising place at the moment,” Carr said about the subsurface. “If there is life on Mars, it’s possible that it only has a habitable environment periodically when there is melting going on. One benefit is if you have a bunch these (penetrating devices), you don’t need them all to survive.”