G. Kminek, ESA/ESTEC, TOS-E, Postbus 299, 2200 AG Noordwijk, The Netherlands
The Microgravity and Manned Spaceflight Directorate of the European Space Agency (ESA) has initiated two studies, one in 1996 and one in 1997, in order to assess the interest and the capabilities for a European effort in exobiology research. Both science teams were composed of senior scientists in the fields of microbiology, geology, cosmochemistry and related disciplines. The first report focused on reviewing the places in our solar system that are able to harbor life or prebiotic evolution. The second report focused on an exobiology package for a Mars lander. In this second report the main idea was to find the required scientific instrumentation with which exobiology research can be carried out on the surface (or subsurface) of Mars. The concept is based on a piggy-pack payload design and not on a dedicated exobiology lander. Its scientific objectives are: to identify and characterize the oxidants, to find morphological and chemical signatures of extinct life, and to determine the chirality of organic compounds if present. Two concepts were evaluated for going into the subsurface: a self-penetrating mole design and a classical core drill system. Although the mole has some advantages, the team favored the classical drill concept. With an required drill depth of approximately 1.5 meters, a carousel like drill stem system can be used to avoid awkward storage requirements. In order to minimize ambiguities, an assembly of instruments was proposed to carry out the in-situ investigation. The instruments can be classified in two categories: first, the visual investigation of the samples (panoramic camera, low resolution microscope (0.1 mm/pixel), optical microscope (£ 3 mm resolution), and atomic force microscope) to characterize and select samples for, secondly, further investigation with spectroscopic and chemical analysis (Alpha-Proton-X-Ray spectrometer, Moessbauer spectrometer, RAMAN (with near-IR excitation), IR spectrometer, pyrolytic gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer). Dedicated detectors for the identification and characterization of oxidants as well as the quantitative analysis and determination of the isomer ratio of chiral compounds are part of the payload assembly. The whole exobiology system, including the sample acquisition, preparation and handling system has a mass of about 26 kg.
As a result of these activities, a nine month Phase A study of this multi-user exobiology package is now planned to start mid- to third quarter 1998 with European industry and scientific institutes. In addition to that, ESA will propose a new microgravity program (following EMIR-2 and MFC) to the member states that will include elements of the exobiology package.