NASA is teaming up once again with the European Space Agency (ESA) in an effort to retrieve samples of Martian soil and bring them safely back to Earth. Their main objective is to study the geological history of the Red Planet in hopes of finding out whether life once bloomed on its now arid surface.
After the 2009 Mars Joint Exploration Initiative was cancelled almost seven years ago due to budget woes on NASA’s part, the two agencies announced they intend to partner up for a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.
The news broke at the 2nd International Mars Sample Return Conference, presently taking place in Berlin, Germany. There, NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen and ESA director of human and robotic exploration Dave Parker signed a letter of intent to solidify the partnership, BBC reports.
“We want to partner with the European Space Agency, but also with other partners,” Zurbuchen disclosed at the ILA Berlin Air and Space Show, this year held at the same time as the Mars conference.
According to BBC, Zurbuchen specified this includes a potential partnership with the private space sector, adding that NASA plans to “look at what is available in the commercial market,” since the agency “has no interest whatsoever” in pouring time and energy into things that are readily offered by private companies.
The goal of the MRS mission is to enable a close-up analysis of fresh samples that could be gathered from Mars’ surface and then shipped off to Earth. If this initiative follows through, it would signify a huge step forward from the current Mars missions involving rovers and stationary landers, which offer more limited research opportunities.
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“It’s very important that every mission we send to Mars discovers something slightly unusual,” Parker chimed in, noting that the outcome of each space mission serves as a starting point for planning the next one.
The specifics of a possible MRS mission are yet to be outlined, but previous designs revolve around the concept of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, that aims to search the Red Planet for signs of past microbial life and drill into the Martian surface to cache samples into containers.
The Mars 2020 mission could end up paving the way for the new MRS initiative, BBC notes, which will also have to incorporate an ascent vehicle to lift off the rover payload and blast it into space on a cruise course to Earth. The third important component of the mission, a descent module, would kick in once the precious cargo reaches Earth’s atmosphere and safely parachute the Martian samples down.
Before you start pointing at Life, the 2017 sci-fi horror movie in which a group of scientists on the International Space Station bring in a fast-evolving microbial life-form from Mars and end up unleashing it on Earth (FYI, his name was Calvin), NASA and ESA want you to know they’ve got all the possibilities covered.
In the event that a microbial organism is indeed detected in the Martian soil samples, strict quarantine procedures will be in place to ensure our planet’s biosphere is not contaminated.
To provide a head’s up for such a discovery, ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter is already mapping the Martian atmosphere in search for the trace signature of methane gas, which could be produced — among other, non-biological sources — by organisms living on Mars.