Current missions, such as the Perseverance rover are currently able to detect a microenvironment, but they do not have the capability to follow through with micro-targeting and microanalysis. Down-borehole ice environment mission do not have instruments available for noncommingled sample analysis. 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. Our 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). We will bring together multiple disciplines, including experts in 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 results of our work will enable future missions to examine the multiplicity of physically and chemically distinct microenvironments that may exist on and beneath planetary surfaces. 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. Spinoff work will enable miniaturization of many components that will minimize dilution but maintain acquisition of materials. These integrated systems will be better harmonized to work together as a cohesive system and thus reduce mass, power, and downstream integration costs. Effectively, we will enable investigating planetary science at a different scale: the microscale.