NASA is considering sending a multi-bilion-dollar mission to return rocks from Mars in 2026, in an effort to better understand whether Mars did or still does host life.
If the mission goes ahead, the sample of Mars soil weighing several kilograms could be returned to Earth by 2029. To date, no Martian material has ever been brought back to Earth by a man-made spacecraft.
The possible mission was unveiled by Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, at a National Academies meeting on Monday.
"Depending on what's in these samples, we will think differently about nature and ourselves," said Zurbuchen, reported The Planetary Society. "Nature will always surprise us."
The first part of the mission is already in development. Provisionally called the Mars 2020 rover, it will touch down on the Red Planet in early 2021. Among its instruments the rover will include a drill, which will be used to collect samples and store them in caches on the surface.
According to Zurbuchen, the possible next step would then be to launch a smaller rover to Mars in October or November 2026. It would arrive in August 2027, owing to the specific 26-month launch windows that occur when our two planets align.
This rover would pick up the samples and deliver them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would launch into orbit and rendezvous with another spacecraft. Presuming it would launch in the Mars-Earth launch window, September 2028, it would arrive back at Earth between June and September 2029.
The big issue at the moment concerning this mission is how to take off from Mars. While it might have looked easy in The Martian, the logistics behind it are anything but. The gravity of Mars is just a third that on Earth but it is still significant, so working out how to overcome it will be tricky. It may require making fuel on the surface of Mars itself.
“[This mission] goes straight for what I would consider the jugular issue, which is how to land and take off the planet,” said Zurbuchen, reported SpaceNews.
No doubt the elephant in the room at the moment is SpaceX. Elon Musk claims his company can send humans to Mars in the late 2020s, which would make NASA’s sample return mission look like child’s play. Many doubt he can actually do it, though, and NASA’s timeline – which includes getting humans to Mars in the 2030s – may be more realistic.