Cite as: Spacek, J. (2022) “New project to find existing life on Mars before humans arrive”. Primordial Scoop, e20220808. https://doi.org/10.52400/TUXC2706
ALFA Mars (Agnostic Life Finding Association – Mars; alfamars.org) is a group of scientists, engineers, science communicators, and volunteers with the goal of determining whether indigenous life is present today on the Martian surface, before the first crewed mission arrives there.
The more astrobiologists know about extreme life on Earth,1, 2, 3 the more they are convinced that life exists today on Mars. Mars is likely hospitable for bacteria4 not just in the deep subsurface liquid water reservoirs,5 but also in its caves, salts, and in abundant Martian ice.6
At the same time, aerospace engineering is being revolutionized. SpaceX showed that reusable rockets are both possible and economic.7, 8 Many other private companies from around the world are now following in SpaceX’s footsteps, developing partially or fully reusable launch systems [Falcon 9 & Falcon Heavy, Hyperbola-2, Long March 8, Miura 5, Neutron, New Glenn, Pallas-1, Starship, RLV, Terran R].
Some of these launch systems may fail. Some may be delayed. But many will join the new space race in the next decade. Independent innovation will likely further lower the cost to place payloads into orbit and, from there, to deep space. Our Solar System is now accessible to private companies.
NASA plans to send humans to Mars around the year 2040.11 The Chinese National Space Agency is much more ambitious, targeting the early 2030s.12 SpaceX wants to beat everyone, sending its first crew to Mars before 2030.13, 14 New startups are already challenging SpaceX, proposing to land private robotic missions on Mars in 2024.15, 16
The Committee on Space Research17 and NASA18 believe that humans traveling to and from Mars pose a planetary protection risk. They fear that microorganisms brought from Earth will damage the Martian ecosystem. They fear that Martian organisms returned from Mars will cause harm on Earth.
As we19 and others20 have written, plenty of material has been, and is still, exchanged between Mars and Earth after it is ejected by meteorite impacts on both.21, 22, 23, 24, 25 Therefore, over the past 3.5 billion years, microorganisms have had plenty of opportunities to continuously “cross-contaminate” both planets.26
Because of the frequent material exchange between the planets, and because organism specialized to live on Mars will likely not be specialized enough to out-compete life in Earth ecosystems (or within visiting astronauts), we do not believe that we need be too concerned about the risks associated with the planetary protection.27, 19
Nevertheless, ALFA Mars sees it as crucial to look seriously for Martian life before humans arrive there. It is always better to know than guess. And yet ALFA Mars is the only organization aiming to determine the presence of life on Mars before the first private company arrives.
ALFA Mars proposes to concentrate genetic polymers from large volumes of Martian glacier ice.28 The concentration strategy relies on decades of work with synthetic biologists, who have told us what kinds of genetic polymers are universal in the galaxy.
We will then analyze these concentrated biomolecules using state-of-the-art tools to establish whether the concentrated material comes from a Martian biosphere. The science will be discussed in more details in the next posts.
ALFA Mars will follow the example of Venus Cloud Life group,29 which is organizing the first private interplanetary mission. Guided by our discoveries in this area,30 the Venus group is sending a probe to the Venusian clouds aboard the Electron Rocket in May 2023;31, 32 this will seek fluorescent organic compounds. The private mission will occur years before any governmental mission.33
We believe that a nimble privately funded mission offers the best chance to find life on Mars before humans arrive.
ALFA Mars does not believe that manned exploration of Mars by sovereign nations and private companies should (or at this point even could) be postponed until after Mars has been sufficiently explored for the presence of life. The only way to achieve the goal of ALFA Mars is to conduct the life screening of Mars before the first humans land there.
For this, we are starting a crowdsourcing campaign to build instruments to fly to Mars as add-on to private missions. While they are mining Martian ice to refuel the return rockets,34 private companies might as well find Martian life.28
Come join us. ALFA Mars needs all of your talents.