NASA experts really want to deliver Martian soil to Earth

Federico Mansilla
Abril 27, 2018

The news broke at the 2nd International Mars Sample Return Conference, presently taking place in Berlin, Germany.

'Previous Mars 2 revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the Red Planet, ' said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa's associate administrator for the science mission directorate'.

A second mission with a small fetch rover would land nearby and retrieve the samples, returning them to its lander and placing them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle - a small rocket to launch the football-sized container into Mars orbit.

Dave Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at Esa, commented: "It's very important that every mission we send to Mars discovers something slightly unusual".

The plan will begin with NASA's 2020 Mars rover, which will collect Martian soil in up to 31 pen-sized canisters.

To be clear, even putting the budget woes aside, spaceflight technology isn't yet at a point where we can accurately forecast when a Mars mission would be a realistic option.

Not only would it require at least three missions from Earth, beginning with NASA's 2020 Mars Rover, but the final step would involve launching a rocket from the surface of Mars itself - a feat that's never been done before.

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The design of a sample return mission would need to be drawn up in coming years.

NASA and the European Space Agency, aka ESA, have signed a statement of intent in order to explore ways to undertake an ambitious joint project - one under which Martian rocks can be gathered and brought back to Earth.

Samples taken from the planet would be loaded onto a vehicle which would lift off from the surface. Today, the high levels of cosmic radiation on Mars' surface - a outcome of its thin atmosphere - would create a hostile environment for any organisms.

Dr Zurbuchen said the sample return mission could also be crucial for later planned human exploration of Mars, which he said Nasa should start thinking about in the 2030s.

He added: "I can imagine a lot of scenarios where the samples are actually critical for how we explore as humans".

The TGO is created to analyse rare gases in the planet's atmosphere, especially methane, which can be a by-product of life. It will contribute to the life question by mapping the distribution in the atmosphere of methane gas, which could be produced by Martian organisms, but also by non-biological sources.

But in 2011, Nasa cancelled its participation in the project amid a budgetary squeeze.

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