NASA and ESA Are Determined to Bring Lots of Martian Soil Back to Earth

Thursday, 26 April 2018 - 6:47PM
Space
Mars
ESA
Thursday, 26 April 2018 - 6:47PM
NASA and ESA Are Determined to Bring Lots of Martian Soil Back to Earth
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/NMMNH
A piece of Mars will soon be coming back to Earth. A whole clump of Mars, actually, and possibly more than that.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) made a scientific pact today to start bringing Martian soil back to Earth so they can study it in person. And they want a lot of it: according to the terms they signed, it would take three Martian missions and the first rocket launch on Mars to get everything back.

Despite the many rovers currently on Mars, with more rovers and a specialized lander also in the works, there's only so much scientists can learn about Mars without literally getting their hands dirty. And since we're now pretty sure that Mars used to be a less barren, watery planet (albeit billions of years ago), live samples of Martian soil could help us understand what that might've looked like, and if any microbial life could have been living inside of it. 



Rather than design three whole new missions to Mars, the two space agencies are modifying existing ones to collect more dirt. The first mission will be NASA's Mars 2020 rover, which launches in just a couple years (no points for guessing the year 2020) as a more advanced version of other rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity.

Mars 2020 will come equipped with tons of state-of-the-art equipment, and will bring along 31 pen-sized canisters for collecting samples.

On ESA's side, they're also launching their own rover called ExoMars in 2021, which will be drilling 6.5 feet (2 meters) into the Red Planet's surface. After this, a third mission would send a spacecraft to Mars' orbit to rendezvous with the rovers and take all the samples back to Earth. 




According to David Parker, the Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA, the idea of looking at a piece of Mars in person is a "mouth-watering" opportunity for scientists. He said the following in an ESA press release

Opening quote
"A Mars sample return mission is a tantalising but achievable vision that lies at the intersection of many good reasons to explore space. There is no question that for a planetary scientist, the chance to bring pristine, carefully chosen samples of the Red Planet back to Earth for examination using the best facilities is a mouth-watering prospect. Reconstructing the history of Mars and answering questions of its past are only two areas of discovery that will be dramatically advanced by such a mission."
Closing quote


Once all of the Mars is on Earth, it'll be kept safely quarantined just in case. They're not expecting any bacterial life to pop out at them, but you never want to let that sort of thing surprise you.
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