The Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) simulated a robotic drilling mission to search for subsurface life on Mars. The drill site was on Pena de Hierro near the headwaters of the Rio Tinto river (southwest Spain), on a deposit that includes massive sulfides and their gossanized remains that resemble some iron and sulfur minerals found on Mars. The mission used a fluidless, 10-axis, autonomous coring drill mounted on a simulated lander. Cores were faced; then instruments collected color wide-angle context images, color microscopic images, visible-near infrared point spectra, and (lower resolution) visible-near infrared hyperspectral images. Cores were then stored for further processing or ejected. A borehole inspection system collected panoramic imaging and Raman spectra of borehole walls. Life detection was performed on full cores with an adenosine triphosphate luciferin-luciferase bioluminescence assay and on crushed core sections with SOLID2, an antibody array-based instrument. Two remotely located science teams analyzed the remote sensing data and chose subsample locations. In 30 days of operation, the drill penetrated to 6 m and collected 21 cores. Biosignatures were detected in 12 of 15 samples analyzed by SOLID2. Science teams correctly interpreted the nature of the deposits drilled as compared to the ground truth. This experiment shows that drilling to search for subsurface life on Mars is technically feasible and scientifically rewarding. Astrobiology 8, 921-945.
Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 921-945.