19 May 2019, 3:49 pm

Mars: The box seeking to answer the biggest question

Is it possible? Is there life on Mars?
Ever since the Mariner 4 probe made the first successful visit to the Red Planet – a flyby in July 1965 – we’ve sent a succession of missions that have given us all sorts of fascinating information about Earth’s near neighbour – but not the answer to the only question that really matters.
So, take a look at the technology that may finally change the game.
This is the Analytical Laboratory Drawer, or ALD – a sophisticated three-in-one box of instruments that will examine rock samples for the chemical fingerprints of biology.
On Thursday, it was gently lifted by crane and lowered into the ExoMars “Rosalind Franklin” rover, the six-wheeled buggy that will carry it across the Oxia plain of Mars in 2021.
The 300kg robot, which is being developed jointly by the European and Russian space agencies, will have a drill that can dig up to 2m below the planet’s dusty surface.
The tailings pulled up by this tool will be handed through a door to the ALD, where the various mechanisms inside will then crush and prepare powders that can be dropped into small cups for analysis.
It will be a forensic examination, looking at all aspects of the samples’ composition.
All previous rovers have skirted the big question. They’ve essentially only asked whether the conditions on Mars today or in the past would have been favourable to life – if ever it had existed. They haven’t actually had the necessary equipment to truly detect biomarkers.
Rosalind Franklin will be different. Its 54kg ALD has been built specifically to look for those complex organic molecules that have their origin in life processes.