Icebreaker Life

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Icebreaker Life
Phoenix Lander small.jpg
Icebreaker Life Lander (proposed - near copy of the Phoenix Lander[1][2]).
Mission type Mars lander
Operator NASA
Mission duration 90 sols
Spacecraft properties
Bus Based on Phoenix lander
Landing mass ~350 kg (770 lb)
Mars lander
Landing site Between 60°N and 70°N
(68°13′N 125°42′W / 68.22°N 125.7°W / 68.22; -125.7 (Icebreaker Life (proposed)) proposed - "near the Phoenix site"[1] )

Icebreaker Life is a Mars mission concept that was proposed for NASA's Discovery Program in 2015.[3] The mission involves a stationary lander that would be a near copy of the successful 2008 Phoenix spacecraft, but would carry an upgraded astrobiology scientific payload, including a drill to sample ice-cemented ground in the northern plains to conduct a search for organic molecules and evidence of current or past life on Mars.[1][4]

The science goals for Icebreaker Life focus on the organics, biomolecules, salts, and minerals within the ice-cemented ground. Only organic biomolecules carry biochemical information, and as such would provide conclusive evidence of habitability and life on Mars, and at the same time would provide information on the biological nature of Martian organisms, even if the organisms themselves were no longer present. Contrary to most near-surface environments on Mars, one of the most appealing aspects of studying Martian ground ice is its potential to contain organic biomarkers, biomolecules or biosignatures that may be preserved and protected for extended periods of time from UV, ionizing radiation and oxidants.[2][5]

The Icebreaker Life was not selected for the Discovery Program, losing out to the Psyche and Lucy missions.

Mission profile[edit]

The Icebreaker Life mission has been designed based on the successful 2008 Phoenix lander in terms of platform and northern landing site. The Icebreaker Life will also be solar-powered and will be able to accommodate the drill and the rest of the payload with only minor modifications to the original lander.

If it had been selected for the 2021 Discovery program mission 13, the lander would have been launched no later than December 2021.[1] The Lander would arrive over the northern plains of Mars in 2022 during the Martian summer, and land between 60°N and 70°N. Icebreaker Life would complete 90% of its science objectives for full mission success by sol 40. The mission was planned to last for 90 sols. Command, control, and data relay are all patterned after the Phoenix mission with relay to Mars orbiters and direct to Earth as a backup. Christopher McKay is the Principal Investigator.


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 (5 million years ago) 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 mid-latitude sites.

To further the current understanding of the habitability of the ice in the northern plains and to conduct a direct search for organics, the Mars Icebreaker Life mission focuses on the following science goals:

  1.  Search for specific biomolecules that would be conclusive evidence of past life. Biomolecules may be present because the Phoenix landing site is likely to have been habitable in recent Martian history. Ground ice may protect organic molecules on Mars from destruction by oxidants and radiation, and as a result organics from biological or meteorite sources may be detectable in polar ice-rich ground at significant concentrations.
  2.  Perform a general search for organic molecules in the ground ice. If habitable conditions were present, then any organics may be of recent (<10 million years) biological origin.
  3.  Determine the nature of the ground ice formation and the role of liquid water. There may have been liquid water generated in the surface soils in the north polar regions within the past <10  million years due to orbital changes in insolation.
  4.  Understand the mechanical properties of the martian polar ice-cemented soil. Polar ice may be a resource for human exploration, and the mechanical properties will reflect the stratigraphy of ice and soil, which may inform models of climate history.
  5.  Assess the recent habitability of the environment with respect to required elements to support life, energy sources, and possible toxic elements. The perchlorate present at the Phoenix site could provide a usable energy source if ferrous iron is present. A source of fixed nitrogen, such as nitrate, is required for habitability.
  6.  Compare the elemental composition of the northern plains with mid-latitude sites.

Duplicate samples could be cached as a target for possible return by a Mars sample return mission.[4] If the samples were shown to contain organic biosignatures, interest in returning them to Earth would be high.


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 (aw) during periods of high obliquity 5 million years ago, when Mars had an orbital tilt of 45°, compared to the present value of 25° and ground ice may have melted enough to preserve organic molecules, including organic biosignatures.

The two Viking landers conducted in 1976 the first, and so far only, search for current life on Mars. The biology experiments sought to detect living organisms based on the hypothesis that microbial life would be widely present in the soils, as it is on Earth, and that it would respond to nutrients added with liquid water. The Viking biology experiments operated successfully on both landers, with an instrument showing signs of active bacterial metabolism, but it did not occur with a duplicate heat-treated sample.[6] Other instruments yielded negative results with respect to the presence of organic compounds. The results of the Viking mission concerning life are considered by the general expert community, at best, as inconclusive.[6][7] Scientists deducted that the ambiguous results may have been caused by an oxidant in the soil.[8] The organic analysis instrument on Phoenix (TEGA) was also defeated by the presence an oxidant in the soil, but this lander was able to identify it: perchlorate.[9] The SAM instrument (Sample Analysis at Mars) currently in use on board the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover, has three capabilities that should allow it to detect organics despite interference from perchlorate.

A null result would establish that Earth-like life is likely not present in the ground ice, arguably the most habitable environment currently known on Mars, implying that Earth-like life is absent on Mars generally. This would lower the risk for biohazards during human exploration or sample return. However, this would not rule out life that does not have Earth-like biomarkers.

Preservation of biomolecules[edit]

One of the key goals of the Icebreaker Life mission is to test the hypothesis that the ice-rich ground in the polar regions has significant concentrations of organics due to protection by the ice from oxidants and radiation.[2] Non-biological organics from infalling meteorites could be detectable in polar ice-rich ground at significant concentrations, so they could be used as indicators that ice actually protect and preserve organic molecules, whether biological or not. If non-biological organics are found, then the north polar regions would be compelling targets for future astrobiology missions, especially because of the potential recent habitability (5 million years ago) of this ice. Target biomolecules will be aminoacids, proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids (e.g., DNA, RNA) and some of their derivatives, NAD+ involved in redox reactions, cAMP for intracellular signals, and polymeric compounds such as humic acids and polyglutamic acid —formed by bacterial fermentation.

Ionizing radiation

Ionizing radiation and photochemical oxidants are more damaging in dry regolith, therefore, it may be necessary to reach ~1 m (3 ft 3 in) deep where organic molecules may be shielded by the ice from the surface conditions. The optimal deposition rate for the landing site would be such that 1 m (3 ft 3 in) of drill will sample through 6 million years of sediment.


Perchlorate is the most oxidized form of the element chlorine, but it is not reactive at ambient conditions on Mars. However, if heated to above 350 °C perchlorate decomposes and releases reactive chlorine and oxygen. Thus, the Viking and Phoenix thermal processing of the soils would have destroyed the very organics they were attempting to detect; thus the lack of detection of organics by Viking, and the detection of chlorinated organic species, may reflect the presence of perchlorates rather than the absence of organics. Of particular relevance, some microorganisms on Earth grow by the anaerobic reductive dissimilation of perchlorate and one of the specific enzymes used, perchlorate reductase, is present in all known examples of these microorganisms. Also, perchlorates are toxic to humans, so understanding the chemistry and distribution of perchlorate on Mars might become an important prerequisite before the first manned mission to Mars.


While sunlight is a powerful energy source for life, it is unlikely to be biologically useful on present Mars because it requires life to be at the surface exposed to the extremely lethal radiation and to dry conditions.[10][11][12][13]

The team estimates that if ice-cemented ground at the landing site was in fact raised 5 million years ago to temperatures warmer than −20 °C, then the resultant water activity (aw=0.82) may have allowed for microbial activity in the thin films of unfrozen water that form on the protected boundary beneath the soil and ice for temperatures above −20 °C. Icebreaker Life would study the concentration and distribution of ferrous iron, nitrate, and perchlorate as a biologically useful redox couple -or energy source- in the ground ice. McKay argues that subsurface chemoautotrophy is a valid energy alternative for Martian life; he suggests that perchlorate and nitrate could form the oxidizing partner in a redox couple if suitable reduced material were available.

Nitrogen fixation

After carbon, nitrogen is arguably the most important element needed for life. Thus, measurements of nitrate over the range of 0.1% to 5% are required to address the question of its occurrence and distribution. There is nitrogen (as N2) in the atmosphere at low levels, but this is not adequate to support nitrogen fixation for biological incorporation. Nitrogen in the form of nitrate, if present, could be a resource for human exploration both as a nutrient for plant growth and for use in chemical processes. On Earth, nitrates correlate with perchlorates in desert environments, and this may also be true on Mars. Nitrate is expected to be stable on Mars and to have formed in shock and electrical processes. Currently there is no data on its availability.

Proposed payload[edit]

Members of the "Icebreaker Life" team during drill automation testing at the University Valley, Antarctica, a Mars-analog site.

Extending the capability of the Phoenix spacecraft, Icebreaker Life would carry a rotary-percussive drill and a selected set of instruments. The drill penetrates 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in ice-cemented ground and the cuttings from this drill are sampled by a robotic sample handling system,[14] and processed by the various analyzers. The proposed instruments have already been tested in relevant analogue environments and on Mars.[2][4] Since 2010, the Icebreaker science payload was proposed as the baseline science payload for developing a joint NASA-SpaceX mission called Red Dragon.[15] Development of the Red Dragon has since been cancelled.[16]

  • The 'Signs of Life Detector' (SOLID) instrument can detect whole cells,[17] specific complex organic molecules, and simple polymers via fluorescence immunoassays.[18] Using a single Life-Detection Chip (LDCHIP) measuring a few square centimeters,[19] SOLID's antibody library can detect up to 300 different organic molecules. The instrument would carry 16 Life-Detection Chips.
  • The Wet Chemistry Laboratory (WCL)[20] is a powerful analytical instrument that will measure the pH, Eh, conductivity, and dissolved ions present in the ice-cemented ground. The WCL was used successfully on the 2007 Phoenix Lander mission.[21][22]
  • A laser desorption mass spectrometer (LDMS) will detect and characterize a wide range of nonvolatile organic compounds. The LDMS uses a pulsed laser desorption/ionization (LDI) process, in which molecular ions are sampled directly from particulate samples at Mars ambient pressure, with no vacuum loading required.
  • The lander uses the Phoenix Surface Stereo Imager (SSI) for monitoring drill and sample delivery operations. It would provide important context information to estimate ice depth and also to understand any surface conditions that may affect mission operations and drill placement.

Planetary protection[edit]

The mission must comply with the planetary protection requirements established by NASA and the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Choi, Charles Q. (16 May 2013). "Icebreaker Life Mission". Astrobiology Magazine. Retrieved 2013-07-01. 
  2. ^ a b c d Gronstal, Aaron L. (April 18, 2014). "Proposed Mars 'Icebreaker' mission detailed". Phys Org. Retrieved 2014-10-13. 
  3. ^ McKay, Christopher P.; 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, and Wayne H. Pollard. (April 5, 2013). "The Icebreaker Life Mission to Mars: A Search for Biomolecular Evidence for Life". Astrobiology. 13 (4): 334–353. Bibcode:2013AsBio..13..334M. PMID 23560417. doi:10.1089/ast.2012.0878. 
  4. ^ a b c McKay, C. P.; 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, and Wayne H. Pollard. (2012). "Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration" (PDF). Lunar and Planetary Institute.  |contribution= ignored (help)
  5. ^ Glass, B. J.; Dave, A.; McKay, C. P.; Paulsen, G. (2014). "Robotics and Automation for 'Icebreaker'". J. Field Robotics. 31: 192–205. doi:10.1002/rob.21487. 
  6. ^ a b Klein, Harold P.; Horowitz, Norman H.; Levin, Gilbert V.; Oyama, Vance I.; Lederberg, Joshua; Rich, Alexander; Hubbard, Jerry S.; Hobby, George L.; et al. (1976). "The Viking Biological Investigation: Preliminary Results". Science. 194 (4260): 99–105. Bibcode:1976Sci...194...99K. PMID 17793090. doi:10.1126/science.194.4260.99. 
  7. ^ Chambers, Paul (1999). Life on Mars; The Complete Story. London: Blandford. ISBN 0-7137-2747-0. 
  8. ^ McKay, Christopher P.; F. J. Grunthaner, A. L. Lane, M. Herring, R. K. Bartman, A. Ksendzov, C. M. Manning,; Alekseev, V.A. (1998). "The Mars Oxidant experiment (MOx) for Mars '96" (PDF). Planetary and Space Science. 46 (6/7): 169~717. Bibcode:1998P&SS...46..169A. doi:10.1016/S0032-0633(97)00173-6. Retrieved 2013-07-02. 
  9. ^ Hecht, M. H.; Kounaves, S. P.; Quinn, R. C.; West, S. J.; Young, S. M. M.; Ming, D. W.; Catling, D. C.; Clark, B. C.; Boynton, W. V.; Hoffman, J.; Deflores, L. P.; Gospodinova, K.; Kapit, J.; Smith, P. H. (3 July 2009). "Detection of Perchlorate and the Soluble Chemistry of Martian Soil at the Phoenix Lander Site". Science. 325 (5936): 64–67. Bibcode:2009Sci...325...64H. PMID 19574385. doi:10.1126/science.1172466 (inactive 2017-01-15). Retrieved 2013-07-04. 
  10. ^ Dartnell, L. R.; Desorgher, L.; Ward, J. M.; Coates, A. J. (2007). "Modelling the surface and subsurface Martian radiation environment: Implications for astrobiology". Geophysical Research Letters. 34 (2). Bibcode:2007GeoRL..3402207D. doi:10.1029/2006GL027494. The damaging effect of ionising radiation on cellular structure is one of the prime limiting factors on the survival of life in potential astrobiological habitats. 
  11. ^ Dartnell, L. R.; Desorgher, L.; Ward, J. M.; Coates, A. J. (2007). "Martian sub-surface ionising radiation: biosignatures and geology". Biogeosciences. 4 (4): 545–558. Bibcode:2007BGeo....4..545D. doi:10.5194/bg-4-545-2007. This ionising radiation field is deleterious to the survival of dormant cells or spores and the persistence of molecular biomarkers in the subsurface, and so its characterisation. [..] Even at a depth of 2 meters beneath the surface, any microbes would likely be dormant, cryopreserved by the current freezing conditions, and so metabolically inactive and unable to repair cellular degradation as it occurs. 
  12. ^ Dartnell, Lewis R.; Michael C. Storrie-Lombardi, Jan-Peter. Muller, Andrew. D. Griffiths, Andrew J. Coates, John M. Ward (March 7–11, 2011). "42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference" (PDF). The Woodlands, Texas: Lunar and Planetary Institute.  |contribution= ignored (help)
  13. ^ The Mars Exploration Program. "Goal 1: Determine if Life Ever Arose On Mars". NASA. Retrieved 2013-06-29. 
  14. ^ Davé, Arwen; Sarah J. Thompson, Christopher P. McKay, Carol R. Stoker, Kris Zacny, Gale Paulsen, Bolek Mellerowicz, Brian J. Glass, David Willson, Rosalba Bonaccorsi, and Jon Rask. (April 2013). "The Sample Handling System for the Mars Icebreaker Life Mission: From Dirt to Data". Astrobiology. 13 (4): 354–369. Bibcode:2013AsBio..13..354D. PMID 23577818. doi:10.1089/ast.2012.0911. 
  15. ^ Glass, B. J.; Dave, A.; Paulsen, G.; McKay, C. P. (14 November 2013). "Robotics and Automation for "Icebreaker"". Journal of Field Robotics. 31: 192. doi:10.1002/rob.21487. Retrieved 2014-05-06. 
  16. ^ Grush, Loren (July 19, 2017). "Elon Musk suggests SpaceX is scrapping its plans to land Dragon capsules on Mars". The Verge. 
  17. ^ It has been established that significant numbers of living microorganisms have been preserved under frozen conditions for thousands and sometimes millions of years (Gilichinsky et al., 1992; Vorobyova et al., 1997).
  18. ^ "SOLID - Signs Of LIfe Detector". Centro de Astrobiología (CAB). Spanish National Research Council (CAB). 2013. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  19. ^ V.Parro, L. A. Rivas, E. Sebastián, Y. Blanco, J. A. Rodríguez-Manfredi, G. de Diego-Castilla, M. Moreno-Paz, M. García-Villadangos, C. Compostizo, P. L. Herrero, A. García-Marín, J. Martín-Soler, J. Romeral, P. Cruz-Gil, O. Prieto-Ballesteros, and J.Gómez-Elvira (2012). "Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration (2012)" (PDF). Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI).  |contribution= ignored (help)
  20. ^ "WCL Wet Chemistry Laboratory". Retrieved 2014-11-26. 
  21. ^ Kounaves, S. P., M. H. Hecht, J. Kapit, K. Gospodinova, L. P. DeFlores, R.C. Quinn, W.V. Boynton, B.C. Clark, D.C. Catling, P. Hredzak, D.W. Ming, Q. Moore, J. Shusterman, S. Stroble, S.J. West, S.M.M. Young, 2010. Wet Chemistry Experiments on the 2007 Phoenix Mars Lander Mission: Data Analysis and Results. J. Geophys. Res.: 115, E00E10
  22. ^ Kounaves, S. P. et al., Soluble Sulfate in the Martian Soil at the Phoenix Landing Site, Geophys. Res. Lett., 2010, 37, doi:10.1029/2010GL042613,