Mars Life Search to Go in High Gear

NASA wants to pull out of a Europe-led Mars mission and instead plan a fast track to find Martian life.

- NASA is casting a wide net to come up with less expensive but scientifically rich missions to Mars.

- Finding out if the planet has or had life remains the top goal.

- The United States plans to back out of an European-led expedition to Mars scheduled to begin in 2016.

Looking to make planetary exploration lemonade out of budgetary lemons, NASA says it is open to taking a quicker route to the holy grail of Mars -- learning if there is or was life there.

Citing lack of budget, the Obama administration wants to pull out from a flagship expedition with Europe to return soil and rock samples from Mars.

The point of the multibillion-dollar, multi-spacecraft campaign, slated to get under way in 2016, is to determine if Earth's neighbor has or ever had life. NASA was to provide the launches, landing system and some science instruments, among other contributions.

Even if Congress nixes a U.S. pullout from the project, it may be too late. Europe already has a new partner for the mission -- Russia.

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Instead of lamenting, NASA is putting together Plan B, a less expensive and perhaps faster path toward answering the age-old question about life on Mars.

"Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate goal," Doug McCuistion, director the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters, told reporters during a conference call Friday.

"I'm hoping that in this process some ideas emerge -- and if they don't I'm going to throw some in -- to try and look at if there are things we can do in the near-term that will shortcut this long search," added NASA space science chief John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who flew five times on the space shuttles.

NASA shot for the moon during its first foray to Mars with a pair of robotic landers that conducted life-detection experiments in 1976. The general consensus is that the Viking robots did not find life, though analysis from one of the experiments is still ongoing 36 years later.

"To a certain extent, since Viking we have gone in with the assumption that Mars is currently a dead planet," Grunsfeld said.

That view is changing. Scientists have detected methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could be a sign of microbial life on the planet. The gas also could be caused by geology.

In addition, an armada of space probes dispatched over the past 15 years has provided mounting evidence that Mars was not always the cold, dry desert it is today.

Mars may even have habitable environments now, places like Newton Crater, which is one of several sites that may be touched by melted briny underground water during the warmer summer months.

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"There is reasonable thinking that there could be life on Mars today," Grunsfeld said.

Scientists may be getting more answers soon. In August, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, a sophisticated rover nicknamed Curiosity, is due to land in Gale Crater to look for places that would be suitable for life, or at least life as we know it. The results could impact NASA's future Mars mission planning.

"Wouldn't it be grand if Mars Science Lab images something or looks at something in Gale Crater and it gives us a stronger indication along these lines?" Grunsfelds said, referring to Mars' suitability for life.

The first part of the agency's revamped Mars exploration plan is expected this summer.