NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed a letter of intent to complete the world’s first round-trip mission to another planet on Thursday, April 26, 2018.
The move was announced at the ILA Berlin Air and Space show, which took place at the same time as the second annual Mars Sample Return Conference.
Such a move could allow scientists to answer humanity’s biggest questions about Mars, one of which being whether Mars hosts life or not.
NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover mission is expected to shine some light onto the Mars Sample Return by drilling into the surface and caching the cores in containers, but this mission is to merely be a demonstration of drilling on Mars.
These cached samples would then be loaded onto an “ascent vehicle,” which would bring the cores from Mars back to Earth for further inspection and studying.
If life does exist on Mars, it will almost certainly be microscopic, microbial life forms. Scientists want to know about Mars’ history, whether there is life there now and if there was life there in the first place.
Scientists can search for either actual, living organisms or they can look for microbial fossils that could indicate that the conditions were once right for life on Mars. Bringing back a sample from Mars is the only way to conclusively answer such questions.
Bringing back extraterrestrial materials to Earth is a somewhat dangerous process. Not only will the Mars rock be drenched in cosmic radiation due to Mars’ thin atmosphere, but a microbial life form could devastate Earth’s biosphere if the microbial form is harmful.
Sophomore Daniel DeLeon said, “I think it’s pretty dangerous to bring back Mars’ surface to Earth, unless it is handled extremely carefully. I have confidence that we will be able to do this properly, conduct a successful mission, and learn tons from it, but planetary dust is nothing to joke around with.”
It would take a lot of time before scientists could be certain that the microbial life is not harmful to humans or other organisms that take residence here on Earth.
It is also important, however, to not contaminate Mars with organisms from Earth. Although we already know this, there are many life forms on this planet that are devastating enough to us, and the effects on extraterrestrial life are not known.
There is also the possibility of detecting a false positive, a microbial organism from Earth that made it onto the rover, survived the flight to Mars, and made it onto the rock sample.
Although it is likely that we would be able to detect such a false positive by simply comparing it to a familiar species already documented, it could have larger implications for the planet of Mars itself.
A wild scenario could result in Earth microbes adapting to their environment on Mars, as evolution is a much quicker process for smaller organisms since they reproduce so quickly.
If there already is life on Mars, these microbes could interact with them, and if there is not life on Mars, this could definitely be the start of it.
Humans are skilled at dealing with hazardous materials already, and we have technologies in place to ensure that any contamination will be contained.
These drillings on Mars can also help scientists explore the implications of sending humans to Mars, something NASA is looking to do in the 2030s.
Scientists could study the toxicity of Mars dust, and whether sending astronauts there could potentially harm them. If we find organisms on Mars, it is also worth finding out if they can be harmful to astronauts going into space.
With dirt samples, we can also see if the dirt on Mars is even usable for growing Earth crops. If not, we know that we would have to bring some Earth dirt to Mars in a future mission.
“It’s great that scientists are going to study some of the effects of Mars on the astronauts that will eventually go there, especially if we intend on colonizing the planet in the future,” said freshman Punya Balwalli.
What do you think about these sample retrieval missions to Mars?