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Robert Cotter

Robert Cotter

Robert Cotter

Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences
reveals the challenges of finding life on Mars

It seems we’ve finally developed technology capable of answering the burning question of life on Mars?

COTTER: Well, we have a better shot now. Thirty years ago, the Viking instruments looked for volatile molecules using a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. All mass specs did until MALDI came along. (You see those all the time on CSI—a program, by the way, that’s actually quite good. I’m really jealous of some of the equipment they have.) But on Mars, if something were volatile it would have evaporated by now. So the European Space Agency was interested in our building a mass spectrometer that could look at non-volatiles, part of the new “signs of life” program. It’s a newer emphasis.

What’re your time frame and budget like?

COTTER: So far we’ve received an 18-month technology development grant for $750,000. Our original proposal was for $26 million. We did not get the full funding yet because NASA wants to make sure of the connection with the European team and give us time to develop the technology. So this lets us assemble a prototype that will tell the feasibility of building the small instrument, getting the mass range and showing that you can bring ions in from the Mars atmosphere. Once the prototype is running, APL will build a flight-ready instrument. That takes us up to 2013.

Are there unique challenges in building an instrument for Mars?

COTTER: Mars has a 10 Torr atmosphere, as opposed to our 760 Torr atmosphere. Ten Torr is the worst possible regime to sustain any electrical voltage, so we’re designing a 300-volt ion trap, compared to the usual 15-volt trap.

Do you think you’ll find anything up there?

COTTER: It’s hard to say. I think we will see something—not only organic, but mineral stuff too. The idea is to see if there was any attempt to get life forming. If we were to find building-block molecules, we’d want to bring them back here and see how they behave. 

**Dr. Cotter passed away in November 2012.

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