NASA Wants to Send a Piece of Martian Rock Back Home
Earth currently has an extremely limited amount of Martian rocks to study. We've never managed a successful round trip flight to and from Mars, so we haven't been able to collect actual samples from the Martian surface to study.
All of the Martian rock that we do have access to has come to us by way of meteors, as random happy accidents blasted rock samples from the Martian surface millions of years ago before, by complete dumb luck, they landed here on Earth. Naturally, this makes Martian rock extremely valuable at the moment.
This being the case, it's a little strange to hear that NASA is going to go out of its way to send a chunk of Martian rock back where it came from. As if this weren't weird enough, the logic behind this is even more bizarre - NASA wants to take this priceless example of rock from another planet, and use it for target practice with a powerful laser.
Counter-intuitive at this may sound, the plan is actually to collect some samples of Martian rock to bring back to the Earth. The difficulty comes in figuring out how to accurately identify and analyze rock from the Martian surface with any degree of accuracy.
The currently in-development Mars 2020 rover (no prize for guessing what year this launches in) will involve sending a preliminary scout to Mars so that it can collect some samples that can be retrieved by a follow-up mission. To aid it in this goal, the rover will be equipped with a laser named SHERLOC, which stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals, but which, let's face it, actually earned its name because NASA scientists wanted to call their scanning tool after a famous detective.
By shining a focused laser onto objects, SHERLOC will be able to analyze tiny features within a rock that are no wider than a human hair. This is a great degree of accuracy, and scientists need to make sure that the device will be calibrated when it arrives on the Martian surface.
This is where the Mars rock comes in. A part of the meteorite Sayh al Uhaymir 008, the rock is believed to be a standard example of what Mars 2020 will find on the Red Planet's surface. Therefore, once the rover arrives on Mars, it can calibrate its sensor using a rock that scientists have already carefully scanned, which will match the kind of material that will be found across the terrain.
According to Luther Beegle, principal investigator for SHERLOC, who said the following in a press release:
While blasting this piece of Martian rock back whence it came may leave the Earth with a temporary relative lack of Red Planet rock to study, this should hopefully lead to a net gain for scientists who are then better able to bring more rocks to Earth on a future trip. Eventually, these rocks will no doubt be literally dirt cheap on Earth, once we've managed to set up solid supply lines to Mars.
In the meantime, now might be a good time to invest in a Mars rock, as its relative value is about to increase ever so slightly as the Earth's supply takes a temporary dip.