Mars Sample Return
The Red Planet is, for several reasons, the focus point in the international context of robotic exploration:
- Mars is the most Earth-like planet in the Solar System. Geological structures show that long ago liquid water flowed on the surface of Mars. On Earth water implies life; an obvious question follows: Is there, or was there, life on Mars?
- Mars is, to date, the most accessible planet for evaluating whether or not life exists, or has existed, elsewhere in the Universe. This accessibility allows us to address questions about the origins and evolution of life by sending a series of missions to the planet, progressively developing the technology need for exploration.
- Mars is a potential staging post for human exploration of space.
A sample return mission – key to understanding the Red Planet
Bringing samples of Mars back to Earth, although technologically challenging, is essential for answering critical scientific questions that cannot be addressed by purely in situ missions. Only in laboratories on Earth can scientists study the samples in sufficient detail to be able to begin to answer questions related to habitability and life. The Mars Sample Return mission will address these questions.
Mars Sample Return represents a milestone in the exploration of the Solar System and, in particular, in the investigation of Mars and the questions regarding its potential habitability. Some important factors influencing the design and development of such a mission are: landing site, sample size, sample collection and sample protection.
A number of new technologies will be required to carry out this pioneering mission: landing system, the ascent vehicle, the rendezvous system in Mars orbit, and the Earth re-entry vehicle or capsule. These will be developed as part of the Mars Robotic Exploration Programme.
The importance and complexity of the Mars Sample Return mission necessitates a global effort, with particular collaboration between ESA and NASA, as well as the participation of other space agencies.
Protecting our neighbours, and ourselves
Careful measures will be needed to protect the sample to avoid contamination of Mars by organisms from Earth and vice versa. A Mars sample return mission would need to comply with planetary protection requirements more demanding than for any mission flown to date.