NASA explains mission to bring samples of Martian soil, rock and atmosphere back to Earth

Mars Preview Return Mission

This illustration shows a concept for multiple robots that would work together to transport samples to Earth collected from the Martian surface by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission aims to return 30 samples of rock, soil and atmosphere now collected by the Perseverance rover to Earth sometime in the early 2030s. The goal is to look for signs of past life and also to learn more about the Red Planet before people visit it.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reached out to NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab with questions derived from comments made by members of the public after a presentation by NASA in May about the mission. Mars Sample Return scientists Michael Meyer and Lindsay Hays responded.

Why can’t monsters be sterilized before returning to Earth?

A significant amount of science would be lost if the samples were sterilized. An example is the destruction of organic compounds that can be potential biosignatures, which is one of the main reasons for returning samples.

NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Why can’t the work be done on the space station or outside the Earth’s atmosphere?

The main motivation for returning samples is to make material from Mars available to the best instruments in labs around the world. Because of the challenges of space instrumentation, including mass, power and volume, any spacecraft instrumentation represents a compromise in capacity. In addition, space is a challenging environment for manipulating samples, eliminating some key measurement possibilities, such as extraction, which would diminish the scientific value of the samples.

Can you pre-run some sort of test to make sure the samples are safe before sending them back to Earth?

If there was a test, that is, a tricorder, we would do it. That said, even the best tests give us good, but ultimately insufficient data to change our containment protocol; a series of tests must be done to demonstrate safety. Please note that we treat the samples with the utmost care – as if they are not safe – until we can prove that they are.

Read: NASA says plan to bring Mars samples back to Earth is safe, but some people are concerned

Mars certainly seems inhospitable, but has NASA awarded a chance that the monsters could harbor some kind of life/microbe?

Mars has been shown to be inhospitable, and that has changed our view of the potential of forward contamination (how likely is it that we would contaminate Mars). And yes, in our minds the extreme environment of Mars reduces the chances that there is life on the surface of Mars. The fact that Mars meteorites land on Earth all the time suggests we have little to worry about. However, we don’t know for sure and will therefore take all precautions and keep Mars material inside until we show they are safe.

This would not be undertaken until the 2030s and a biosafe facility would be built for it, right?

Yes, a facility will be built to store the samples and to distribute subsets of the samples determined to be safe, either by sterilizing the sample subset or by using the cumulative results of measurements to conclude that the samples are safe.

Lockheed Martin wins NASA contract to bring Mars samples back to Earth

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