The harsh conditions that now exist on the surface of the planet mean that any remaining traces of life will be far beneath the surface, and Martian soil is too unstable for conventional drills. Holes bored the usual way are likely to collapse. “The soil is a mixture of sand, dust and rocks cemented together with salt minerals,” says John Bridges, who studies Martian geology at the Natural History Museum in London. “For the most part, it’s like digging in a sandpit.”

Now engineers have developed a long, hot spear that can melt through Martian soil and rocks to depths where they hope to find evidence of past life on Mars.

The new drill bit, developed by Geoff Briggs, scientific director at NASA’s Center for Mars Exploration, reinforces the holes as it digs them. “The tip melts pretty much any type of rock,” says Briggs. It forces the molten rock into the surrounding porous soil, turning it to glass and locking the soil in place.

There’s one problem: The extreme heat from the drill bit will destroy any traces of life that it encounters. But once a hole is dug, other tools can be lowered into it to take samples from areas that are not affected by the heat.

It’s hard to preserve signs of life, however. Colin Pillinger, who will be leading the Beagle 2 Mars lander that is scheduled for 2003, says, “If organic residues produced by organisms are brought up to the surface, they’ll be converted to carbon dioxide immediately.”

Store this information in your mind for when the Beagle 2 lands, in case scientists announce they’ve found no life on Mars.

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