ChemPhysChem, 2003 4, 162-168

Electrochemical Approaches for Chemical and
Biological Analysis on Mars

Samuel P. Kounaves
Tufts University, Department of Chemistry, Medford, MA, 02155


Obtaining in-situ chemical data from planetary bodies such as Mars or Europa can present significant challenges. The one analytical technique that has many of the requisite characteristics to meet such a challenge is electroanalysis. Described here are three electroanalytical devices designed for in-situ geochemical and biological analysis on Mars. The Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment (MECA) was built and flight qualified for the now cancelled NASA Mars '01 Lander. Part of MECA consisted of four "cells" containing arrays of electrochemically-based sensors for measuring the ionic species in soil samples. A next-generation MECA called the Robotic Chemical Analysis Laboratory (RCAL) uses a carousel type system to allow for greater customization of analytical procedures. A second instrument, proposed as part of the 2007 CryoScout mission, consists of a flow-through inorganic chemical analyzer (MICA). CryoScout is a torpedo-like device designed for subsurface investigation of the stratigraphic climate record embedded in Mars' north polar cap. As the CryoScout melts its way through the ice cap, MICA will collect and analyze the melt-water for a variety of inorganics and chemical parameters. By analyzing the chemistry locked in the layers of dust, salt, and ice, geologists will be able to determine the recent history of climate, water, and atmosphere on Mars and link it to the past. Finally, electroanalysis shows its abilities in the detection of possible microorganism on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system. To identify an unknown microorganism, one that may not even use Earth type biochemistry, requires a detection scheme which makes minimal assumptions and looks for the most general features. Recent work has demonstrated that the use of an array of electrochemical sensors which monitors the changes in a solution via electrical conductivity, pH, and ion selective electrodes, can be used to detect minute chemical perturbations caused by the growth of bacteria and with the correct methodology provide unambiguous detection of such life forms.