Excitement of Mars mission tempered by need to secure what we bring back

Space Science
Mars 2020 rover

The Mars 2020 rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

MYSTERY WIRE — While visions are coming together of sending humans to Mars, another project to collect samples from the planet’s surface and return them to Earth is much further along than you might think.

“The payoff of the sample return would be a breakthrough in our understanding of the history of Mars. An of the potential for life beyond our home planet,” NASA says in a video about the upcoming mission.

The launch this summer of the Mars 2020 rover is the first step. The rover is equipped to take core samples from Martian rock, and to store those samples until they are picked up later. There’s much more that has to happen to get the samples back to Earth:

These samples could contain the first hard evidence of extraterrestrial life. And they could contain something much worse, too.

NASA in working with the European Space Agency on the various stages of the trip to Mars, the collection of samples, and the return trip to Earth.

Scientists who spoke to Space.com acknowledged the fears of unknown microbes or deadly plagues carried in the samples. And they want the public to know they are planning secure labs for the arrival of the samples. Those labs don’t exist yet.

The samples will arrive sometime in 2031 if all goes according to plan, and the conversation is already starting.

“We don’t want to be in the position where we’re just getting the information out when the public hears that the rocks are coming back,” Sheri Klug Boonstra of Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility said last month.

Think about all this when you read about space tourism and private missions to Mars. It might move a little slower than all the hype would lead you to believe.

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