The icebreaker life mission to mars: A search for biomolecular evidence for life

Christopher P. McKay, Carol R. Stoker, Brian J. Glass, Arwen I. Davé, Alfonso F. Davila, Jennifer L. Heldmann, Margarita M. Marinova, Alberto G. Fairen, Richard C. Quinn, Kris A. Zacny, Gale Paulsen, Peter H. Smith, Victor Parro, Dale T. Andersen, Michael H. Hecht, Denis Lacelle, Wayne H. Pollard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


The search for evidence of life on Mars is the primary motivation for the exploration of that planet. The results from previous missions, and the Phoenix mission in particular, indicate that the ice-cemented ground in the north polar plains is likely to be the most recently habitable place that is currently known on Mars. The near-surface ice likely provided adequate water activity during periods of high obliquity, ∼5 Myr ago. Carbon dioxide and nitrogen are present in the atmosphere, and nitrates may be present in the soil. Perchlorate in the soil together with iron in basaltic rock provides a possible energy source for life. Furthermore, the presence of organics must once again be considered, as the results of the Viking GCMS are now suspect given the discovery of the thermally reactive perchlorate. Ground ice may provide a way to preserve organic molecules for extended periods of time, especially organic biomarkers. The Mars Icebreaker Life mission focuses on the following science goals: (1) Search for specific biomolecules that would be conclusive evidence of life. (2) Perform a general search for organic molecules in the ground ice. (3) Determine the processes of ground ice formation and the role of liquid water. (4) Understand the mechanical properties of the martian polar ice-cemented soil. (5) Assess the recent habitability of the environment with respect to required elements to support life, energy sources, and possible toxic elements. (6) Compare the elemental composition of the northern plains with midlatitude sites. The Icebreaker Life payload has been designed around the Phoenix spacecraft and is targeted to a site near the Phoenix landing site. However, the Icebreaker payload could be supported on other Mars landing systems. Preliminary studies of the SpaceX Dragon lander show that it could support the Icebreaker payload for a landing either at the Phoenix site or at midlatitudes. Duplicate samples could be cached as a target for possible return by a Mars Sample Return mission. If the samples were shown to contain organic biomarkers, interest in returning them to Earth would be high.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)334-353
Number of pages20
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2013


  • In situ measurement
  • Life detection
  • Mars
  • Planetary protection
  • Special region

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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