In general, we plan to organize the conference program around the following major themes:
- candidate environmental niches on Mars that form the basis for one or more hypotheses for extant martian life
- the types of measurements necessary to test these hypotheses
- the kinds of present and future missions, including the associated instrumentation, that could contribute to the search for evidence of extant life.
NOTE: We are interested in both life as we know it and novel life forms of which we are currently unaware (aka life as we don’t know it).
Key aspects of the conference will be time allocated for discussion and the extent to which the conference participants can identify or establish consensus positions involving these topics. At the end of the conference, we will have a short session where, as a group, we will discuss a synthesis of the recommendations to come out of the conference in the form of a listing of key questions, future research directions, and possible options for the Mars flight program. It is intended that this output will constitute a portion of the planning material being developed as input to the coming planetary Decadal Survey, including the contribution of white paper(s).
We welcome any abstract in support of the above themes. To help candidate abstract writers, we have compiled our ideas on how these themes might be broken down into specific questions or discussion topics. However, if you have additional ideas, we would love to hear them.
Where on Mars should we search for evidence/proof of extant life? Which martian environments are most promising?
- We encourage abstracts on all credible candidate target environments on Mars that may host evidence of extant life. Candidate environments for current extant life include surface, shallow subsurface, and deep subsurface niches.
- We encourage abstracts that discuss temporal and spatial parameters (physical and/or chemical) that may limit the presence of extant life in otherwise promising martian environments.
- What can we assume about the Mars biosphere at any point in its geological history? What can we not assume? What are the implications for its state today?
- Do conditions that preserve biosignatures on Earth accurately reflect biomass and preservation potential in analogous martian environments? What differences between terrestrial and martian environments could alter how extant biosignatures are formed and preserved in rock, ice, and soil?
- We also welcome abstracts that use terrestrial analogs to prioritize and interpret candidate martian target sites. In rocks, ices, and soils on Earth, are biomarkers of extant life concentrated in particular settings?
- What can measurements of microbial activity and survival under simulated martian conditions tell us about the potential types of extant life and in which environments they might reside?
What should we measure?
Signatures of present life as we know it:
- What are the best candidate biosignatures for measurement?
- How can micro- to macroscale evidence (orbital, outcrop, and sample-scale perspectives) be utilized, either individually or in tandem, to detect and analyze biosignatures of modern life?
- We welcome abstracts relating to the use of returned samples for extant life detection.
- For sample return-based investigation approaches, what and where would we sample?
- What back contamination mitigation protocols and assays are critical to confirm the biosafety of returned samples?
- Are there viable investigation strategies for detection of extant life that don’t involve sample contact and/or sample collection?
- How can we minimize false positive identification of Earth life?
Signatures of present life as we don’t know it:
- We welcome abstracts focused on the search for novel life forms (i.e., looking for life as we don’t know it) that consider the same questions as for other biosignatures (see above).
How can we search for evidence of extant life using available or planned technologies?
- We encourage abstracts conceptualizing how future missions and associated instrumentation could/should be used in the search for extant life.
- We are especially interested in hypotheses that can be tested by means of robotic spacecraft sent to Mars (including MSR), but investigation strategies that utilize future human missions are also within the scope of the conference.
- What are the best candidate life-detection instruments (and any necessary associated sample prep) for near-term robotic and long-term human missions?
- Are there specific instruments that should be dropped from consideration for robotic or human life-detection missions, and if so, why?