"The bottom line is that if life is out there, the high-tech tools of chemistry will find it sooner or later," said Jeffrey Bada, co-organizer of a special two-day symposium on the Red Planet at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Denver.
"One reason that the questions linger is that they haven't had the right instruments," Bada, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, said in an ACS release Tuesday. "We have the instruments now or are in the process of developing and refining them. The challenge is getting them onboard future spacecraft, knowing what kinds of compounds to look for and knowing exactly where to look."
He said he worries NASA budget cuts could jeopardize future unmanned missions that could carry the sophisticated instruments to the distant planet. Many scientists are pinning their hopes on the new Mars Science Laboratory rover, called Curiosity, scheduled for launch in November.
The $2.5 billion nuclear-powered machine will land on Mars' surface with a suite of 10 science instruments to try to determine whether conditions are favorable for life.
"The instruments on that atmospheric mission have a factor of 100 to 1,000 increase in sensitivity over what is currently available from Mars orbiters or from ground observations," symposium co-organizer Mark Allen, the U.S. project scientist for the 2016 mission, said.