On December 10-11, 2019, the PML of the Institute for Planetary Materials (IPM), Okayama University and the Australian Centre for Astrobiology of the University of New South Wales Australia co-hosted a two-day workshop in Misasa, Japan, to develop a proposal for a sample return mission to the Columbia Hills of Mars – here named “LifeSprings”.
There were 35 people in attendance, including academic staff and researchers of the IPM, senior engineering members of the Japanese Space Agency (ISAS/JAXA), a group of junior engineering academics who also have ties to ISAS/JAXA, NASA’s Mars2020 Project Scientist, and a number of invited academics from the United States of America, New Zealand, Australia, and India. Three invited research academics from Imperial College London and from Sweden were unable to attend.
The aim of the workshop was to investigate the feasibility of, and develop a mission plan to undertake a sample return mission to the Columbia Hills, Mars, with the specific aim of collecting and returning samples of digitate opaline silica nodules previously discovered by NASA’s Spirit Rover in the mid-2000’s, for scientific analysis for signs of past life.
The mission concept is driven by science, with engineering design to facilitate science objectives.
The scientific driver for this sample return mission is based on the following key components:
These key features have led the leaders of this workshop and their research colleagues to the conclusion that the best place to search for life on Mars is in ancient (Noachian) hot spring deposits, such as those preserved around the feature known as Home Plate, in the Columbia Hills of Gusev Crater, Mars.
This is because ancient hot springs would have been the most likely place for life to have gained a foothold on Mars, and because hot spring deposits are known to be able to preserve signs of life over billions of years. Indeed, it is considered that hot springs could have been the first and last outposts for life on Mars, in that – if life developed – it may have remained only within hot springs as the planet cooled and dried out after a short period of “warm and wet” conditions when life may have got started.
As to why undertake a complex sample return mission as opposed to a mission with capability for in situ analysis, the thinking adopted by the leadership group was that for any chance to convince the broader community that there was ever life on Mars (if, indeed there ever was), then we would have to have samples here on Earth so that we could subject them to the most rigorous scientific analysis, and share material with labs around the world for verification. It is simply the fact that the labs on Earth are far superior to anything we could fly up to Mars and thus, all efforts should be made to bring hot spring sample material back to Earth.
Participants at the workshop presented a series of talks on:
The following mission objectives were adopted at the Misasa LifeSprings workshop.