Current missions, such as the Perseverance rover, are currently able to detect microenvironments, but they do not have the capability to follow through with micro-targeting and microanalysis. Similarly, down-borehole ice environment missions do not have instruments available for separable sample analysis. Through this workshop, we propose to develop a roadmap for the technologies and techniques required to detect, image, acquire/sample, and analyze astrobiological microenvironments at a target scale of 100 to 1 microns.
Relevant planetary targets include in situ analysis of permafrost environments (Mars, Ceres, Callisto); the ice/ocean interface and deep ice microenvironments (all Ocean Worlds, possibly Mars ice cap at depth); and ocean sediments, hydrothermal, and host rock environments (all Ocean Worlds, with a special emphasis on Europa and Enceladus). Our objectives closely align with the Planetary Science Decadal Survey’s recommendation that “NASA’s programs and missions should reflect a dedicated focus on research and exploration of subsurface habitability.” In particular, the Survey promotes studies that will inform the astrobiological potential of “low-energy terrestrial biospheres that can only support a low total biomass that may be difficult to detect against the backdrop of abiological physical and chemical processes. Biomass distribution in these settings is highly heterogeneous; key is the use of preserved environmental guideposts, i.e., mineralogic or physical interfaces, to first identify the energetically favorable locales for life and then search for the biosignatures at microscopic scales.”
We will bring together experts from multiple disciplines, including Ocean Worlds, cryosphere, state-of-the-art biological imaging, microbe-environment interactions, robotic acquisition and micro-manipulation, and environmental capture and culture in extreme environments. Among the technological capabilities our study will examine and advance are 1) non-destructive instrumentation to detect biosignatures (agnostic and Earth inspired); 2) sampling techniques to collect and preserve microhabitats while retaining the spatial context; and 3) culturing of acquired microorganisms. While the scale is small, the challenges are immense. Many of these techniques have been recently developed for laboratory use, but not for field use or planetary instrumentation.
The objectives of this first workshop are to understand the physical, biological, and technical opportunities and limitations of non-destructive microhabitat analyses, consider novel approaches to addressing obstacles, and begin to develop a realistic process to incorporate such exploration strategies into future missions. Ultimately, our work will enable the development of integrated tools and systems that can work together to better target astrobiological exploration on the scale of the microenvironment.