Specific aspects of carbon chemistry that should be investigated include the following:
The presence of polymers based on repeating universal subunits;
Patterns in the carbon isotopic compositions of organic molecules that reflect organized polymerization of smaller subunits or precursors;
Patterns in the carbon numbers of organic compounds; and
The presence of carbon compounds that have only a subset of the possible connectivities or atomic spatial arrangements (i.e., just a few structural isomers or stereoisomers and/or strong chiral preferences).
What research activities would improve exploration methodology and instrumentation capabilities to enhance the chances of astrobiological discovery? The vitality of Mars astrobiology science goals and investigations has not diminished with the delays in a Mars sample-return mission or the initiation of other activities. The ongoing missions (e.g., Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Exploration Rovers, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and the missions in development (Phoenix and Mars Science Laboratory) all are, or will be, returning scientific data that directly address astrobiology goals in substantive ways. Missions that are being planned for the next decade also have strong astrobiology components, and the Mars program is intimately intertwined with astrobiology science objectives. Thus, if astrobiologists are to advance their science goals for the exploration of Mars, they must work with NASA to ensure that the upcoming missions proceed as scheduled and, then, take advantage of the scientific data these spacecraft will collect.
Ensuring the success of future missions will require attention to the following activities:
Research and analysis activities, and
Supporting activities such as studies of martian meteorites and Mars-analog environments on Earth.
Missions such as Mars Sample Return and the Astrobiology Field Laboratory will require significant technical advances if they are to be carried out successfully. Technology development must occur both in mission-related areas (e.g., entry, descent, and landing systems, including a precision landing capability; sample-return technology; in situ sample processing and handling; and planetary protection) and in astrobiological science instrumentation (so that the necessary next generation of instruments is ready to go). In particular, a means must be developed to take instruments from the low and middle technology readiness levelsa up to TRL 6 so that they are ready for flight when needed.
Recommendation. The Mars Exploration Program must make stronger investments in technology development than it does currently.
It is through the basic research and analysis (R&A) programs that results are obtained from the data returned by missions and ideas are developed for future missions. In particular, R&A programs are the primary vehicle by which the Mars Exploration Program can maintain its vitality in response to new discoveries. R&A programs should include analysis of existing and about-to-be-obtained data from Mars missions, analysis of basic martian processes to help in developing ideas about Mars evolution and history, and comparative planetology that allows
NASA measures progress primarily by using technology readiness levels (TRLs) with each plan and providing a technology maturation plan with TRL milestones aligned with cost estimates for achievement. The higher the TRL, the more mature the technology. Technology program performance is measured as a function of planned versus actual TRL advancement.