Earth's scientists aren't content with just sending robotic adventurers to Mars to examine the local dirt. They want to investigate it up close and personal.
NASA and the European Space Agency signed a letter of intent on Thursday to collaborate on a plan to bring Martian soil samples back to our planet. This is easier said than done. The ESA notes it would take several missions from Earth, plus a first-ever rocket launch from the surface of Mars.
NASA already has part of the plot figured out with its Mars 2020 Rover mission. The rover will pack soil into small canisters during its explorations. Those canisters will wait for pickup by a future mission.
The next step would require sending a small rover to fetch the samples, bring them back to a lander and put them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle. This machine would launch the container into orbit around Mars. But we're not done yet. A third mission from Earth would have to collect the samples from orbit and bring them back.
"Previous Mars missions revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the Red Planet," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. "A sample would provide a critical leap forward in our understanding of Mars's potential to harbor life."
NASA and the ESA will look into the feasibility of the plan and aim to share the results in 2019.
If the space agencies succeed in bringing a bit of Mars to Earth someday, the samples will be placed in quarantine upon arrival.
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