Credit: Leslie Mullen
There are many fascinating places in our solar system to explore, but space missions are dangerous and expensive. Sending robots instead of people helps reduce these drawbacks. For this kind of exploration, Professor Bernard Foing looks to the Moon, Mars and beyond, hoping to discover tantalizing secrets useful to astrobiologists.
Foing is the senior research coordinator at the ESA space science department, and executive director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group. Foing has developed instruments used on space probes, and is known as the father of the successful SMART-1 mission to the Moon.
"SMART-1 has shown that Europe alone can build an effective mission to the Moon," says Foing. "The next step is to use our expertise to develop lunar landers and rovers."
Foing says his team is now analyzing the data of SMART-1, which spent 18 months orbiting the Moon and mapping the landscape with micro-cameras, infrared instruments and x-ray instruments. Information such as the chemical composition of certain regions can teach us about the Moon's origin and past; high resolution images also can point to places where future landers and rovers could be sent.
Foing sees potential in using our Moon as a unique laboratory to export life from Earth to other worlds.
"I am interested in the aspect of expanding life on other planets," he says. "For instance, looking at places where we could deploy bacteria experiments or life science experiments that could help to develop life support systems. In the future we would have human settlements that would grow on what we learn from life science experiments."
Foing says a second biosphere could be built on the Moon where humans would be able to live. The initial stages of creating habitable areas on the lunar surface almost certainly will be conducted by life science experiments on robotic missions.
Foing describes the plan as a four-stage program. First, using orbital precursor missions like SMART-1, robots map the Moon in detail and learn about lunar geology. The next part should come after 2010, when a variety of probes from different countries will be deployed on the surface, working in concert on various activities. After that, infrastructure and life-support systems will be constructed and visited for short periods by astronauts. The final stage will have outposts and a permanent human presence on the Moon.
These plans may seem ambitious, but international collaboration is contributing more than ever before. "We are offering some of our SMART-1 data to help other countries to prepare their missions," explains Foing. "With our ESA ground stations, we are helping the Chinese to double the amount of data they are going to downlink with their Chang'e 1 mission." These aren't just one-way deals though, since data and equipment can be shared between all space agencies. The Chinese Chang'e 1 mission, Japan's Selene-Kaguya, and the United State's upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS Impactor will all provide valuable data.
"We are looking at ways where we could exchange information and carry some instruments from other countries on our platform," adds Foing. "Also, some of our European instruments can be carried onboard landers from international partners."
Foing's research takes him further afield than our natural satellite. He is involved in the ExoMars project, a mission that will be launched in 2013. "In the case of ExoMars, we are going to deploy instruments that will search for signs of extinct or extant life," he says. "It has a battery of organic sensors and life search instruments. We also have also a series of geophysical instruments like the camera system which I am involved with."
Robots with instruments such as these are at the forefront of our exploration strategies, making it possible that if we do find alien organisms, the discovery will be made by a machine.
For Foing, the search for life on Mars is a key aspect of our investigations in space. "We believe that in the first billion years of its history, Mars had some habitable conditions," he says. "So maybe life developed there a second genesis or it may have been transported from Earth. Answering this very important question about life on Mars requires sensitive scientific instruments, because for the last three billion years, conditions there have not been hospitable on a cold and dry Mars."So if there is evidence for past life it may be difficult to find.
Foing also thinks our investigations should take us beyond our own solar system. Astronomers are now searching for the ingredients of life, such as amino acids, in the vast reaches of space. Eventually these far-flung elements reach the surfaces of planets throughout the universe, and increase the chances that life will arise there. In the next 15 years, he says, missions like the Darwin infrared interferometer will be able to search for such biomarkers on Earth-like planets around other stars.