Sometimes the most obvious things somehow get lost when large complex missions are being planned and we can’t see the forest for the trees. The new Curiosity rover has not found life but did find some compounds related to life. The Mars Viking mission originally thought they had found life in the 1970s but the data was not conclusive. New analysis of the Viking data in 2012 shows a significant probability that indeed life was found. Why then has no mission ever taken a microscope to Mars? The Viking mission showed signs of microbial life as soon as a nutrient liquid was introduced to the mars soil. A microscope could have confirmed this. One of the most basic tools any scientist uses is a microscope and it is well past time we took one to Mars.
We even came up with a name for it…Microscope On Mars or MOM (cute huh?). NASA has stated that they would like a Mars soil return mission. If they are serious about this how can we take the risk of bringing foreign microbes to Earth that we have not already examined under the microscope? Do we all want to become infected and turn into Zombies? Even if there we do not find life there are still advantages to looking at the Martian soil under a Microscope. We don’t know what we will see until we do it.
If the U.S. taxpayers are going to spend another few billion dollars on a new mission to Mars in 2020 we should send one of the most basic of tools known to science, sometimes less is more. NASA likes the complex sophisticated instruments, and they certainly have their place, but sometimes you need to get back to the basics. If Viking had this basic tool, and we saw microbes way back in the 70s, the life on Mars debate would be over.
The instrument suite for the new Mars mission is being formulated now. This time why don’t we repeat the Viking experiment, but take a microscope this time. Seems like a no brainer.