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A Mars sample-return mission is coming. Scientists want the public to know what to expect.

Artist's illustration of NASA's planned Mars Ascent Vehicle launching samples off the surface of the Red Planet.
Artist's illustration of NASA's planned Mars Ascent Vehicle launching samples off the surface of the Red Planet.
(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltch)

The first pristine pieces of Mars won't be coming down to Earth for at least another decade, but the time to start preparing society for the epic arrival is now, scientists say.

NASA's 2020 Mars rover is scheduled to launch in July of this year and land inside the Red Planet's 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater next February. The six-wheeled robot will do a variety of work once it gets there, but its headline task is hunting for signs of ancient Mars life. 

Mars 2020 will do this on the ground in Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago. The rover will also collect and cache promising samples for eventual return to Earth, where scientists in well-equipped labs around the world can scrutinize them in exacting detail for any evidence of Martian organisms.

Related: The Search for Life on Mars (A Photo Timeline)

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will work together to get those samples here. The current plan, which is not yet official, envisions two key launches in 2026. These will send ESA's Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) and NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission toward the Red Planet.

ERO will make its way to Mars orbit, whereas SRL will drop a stationary lander, the ESA-provided Sample Fetch Rover (SFR), and a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) near the Mars 2020 landing site.

The SFR will pick up the cached Mars 2020 samples, which will be encased in sealed tubes, and haul them back to the MAV. Mars 2020 may store some of its samples on its body; if that's the case, the NASA rover could roll over to the MAV and make a deposit as well. 

The MAV will then launch into Mars orbit, where it will deploy the container harboring the samples. The ERO will pluck this precious cargo out of the void and haul it back toward Earth, jettisoning the container once our planet is in the crosshairs. The samples will land here in 2031, if all goes according to this preliminary plan.

This touchdown will be a momentous occasion. Engineers will glory in the tremendous technological achievement — we've returned samples from the moon, but that's quite a bit closer to Earth — and scientists will revel in the chance to learn a great deal about ancient Mars and, perhaps, find out whether Earth life is alone in the universe. 

(Researchers have examined Mars material before: meteorites blasted off the Red Planet by asteroid or comet strikes that ended up landing here on Earth. But those Mars rocks aren't pristine — they endured trips through two planetary atmospheres and lots of time in deep space — and they weren't specially chosen for their potential to host evidence of life.)

The public will doubtless be excited, too. But if the arrival catches folks off guard, there will probably be considerable fear, anxiety and confusion as well, said Sheri Klug Boonstra of Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility. So, the members of the international Mars sample-return team need to start educating and engaging laypeople about the effort now, said Klug Boonstra, a science-education specialist who's the principal investigator of NASA's Lucy Student Pipeline and Competency Enabler Program.

Related: The Boldest Mars Missions in History

"The public has to be a major part of the equation," she told Space.com last month at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, where she gave a presentation on this very topic

For example, some people will likely worry that the samples could harbor some sort of infectious microbe that could get loose and unleash a deadly plague on humanity. The sample-return team has thought about this remote possibility, of course, and is doing its best to ensure it could never come to pass. 

After arriving on Earth, the Mars material will first be vetted at a specially constructed Sample Receiving Facility, which will be designed to prevent contamination in both directions: Nothing unwanted can get in to taint the samples, and nothing from the samples can get out into the wider world. The SRF hasn't been built; indeed, a site for it hasn't even been chosen yet. But the sample-return project can use existing Biosafety Level 4 labs — the most secure ones, which keep nasty viruses such as Ebola from spilling out — as a baseline, team member Tim Haltigin of the Canadian Space Agency told Space.com at the AGU meeting.

The public needs to know that such safety measures will be taken, Klug Boonstra said. And it's also important to get across the potential scientific bounty represented by those little tubes of Mars material, she added. 

The sample-return team is still working out what engagement strategies to employ. Klug Boonstra said the project would like to organize some opt-in focus groups to learn which tacks to take — for example, if activities in schools would be particularly useful in getting the word out.

And that needs to start happening soon, she stressed. It could well take a decade to get Mars sample return fully socialized, especially since our society seems to be getting less science-literate and more sound-bite-driven.

"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," Klug Boonstra said.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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  • rod
    Admin said:
    The first pristine pieces of Mars won't be coming down to Earth for at least another decade, but the time to start preparing society for the epic arrival is now, scientists say.

    Mars sample return is coming, so scientists urge preparing the public for it now : Read more

    *epic*, Q: will the *first pristine pieces of Mars* confirm the law of abiogenesis at work throughout the universe that explains the origin of life?
    Reply
  • Speed
    "The public will doubtless be excited, too. But if the arrival catches folks off guard, there will probably be considerable fear, anxiety and confusion as well, said Sheri Klug Boonstra of Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility."
    Like there was when we brought back moon samples?
    Like there was when we brought back asteroid samples?
    Like there was when we brought back comet samples?
    Is she fear mongering, or does she hold the general public is that low regard?
    Reply
  • rod
    My opinion - the search for life in the universe is chiefly motivated by belief in the *law of abiogenesis* at work where non-living matter can undergo spontaneous combustion and evolve into life, and later, an evolutionary tree of life. The public could be caught off guard if Mars is shown to support the *law of abiogenesis* for the explanation for the origin of life.
    Reply
  • Marce79
    Considering that Space X continues to claim that it'll be capable of landing the first humans on Mars around 2024, which is the purpose of planning an automated sample-return mission for 2031? Unless they're thinking this mission as a test ground for farther places like Titan, Enceladus or Europa. It's clear that if Space X succeeds, the whole world will benefit from this milestone.
    Reply
  • prince86100
    Mon avis - la recherche de la vie dans l'univers est principalement motivée par la croyance en la * loi de l'abiogenèse * au travail où la matière non vivante peut subir une combustion spontanée et évoluer vers la vie, et plus tard, un arbre de vie évolutif. Le public pourrait être pris au dépourvu s'il est démontré que Mars soutient la * loi de l'abiogenèse * pour l'explication de l'origine de la vie.
    Reply
  • prince86100
    je trouve cette mission assez débile pour la deuxième partie qui concerne la récupération de la roche est attendre une décennie, pour la récupération.
    surtout que la NASA a, Space x , dans les bretelles qui , a des projets plus rapide, vers mars, que la nasa....
    Reply
  • neutrino78x
    rod said:
    *epic*, Q: will the *first pristine pieces of Mars* confirm the law of abiogenesis at work throughout the universe that explains the origin of life?

    Rod, I'm not sure what you're asking...abiogenesis is implied by the existence of life. Obviously, at some point, there was something that was not alive, and then it became alive. Otherwise all this life wouldn't be here.

    Are you trying to suggest that finding life outside of Earth would disprove the existence of God, or something? Because it has no bearing on the existence of God. If there is a God, it designed the laws of physics (including those governing the multiverse, so if there is one, it doesn't change this) in such a way that abiogensis would occur and sentient beings would evolve from lower forms of life on at least one planet, if not multiple planets throughout the universe.

    I'm a Deist....but the Roman Catholic Church, at least, teaches that the existence of alien life and alien civilizations does not contradict their beliefs.

    Byrd Pinkerton
    What would it mean for Catholicism for us to discover intelligent life elsewhere?
    Guy Consolmagno
    You know, we’ve already got that say that we’re not the only intelligent things made by God. That’s already built into the system.

    You’ve got marvelous places where a farmer talks about the stars shouting for joy at their creator.

    We don’t know what we’re talking about. And as long as we realize that it’s fun to hypothesize, it’s fun to have fun with the ideas.

    source, Interview with Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno
    Guy Consolmagno is the current head of the Vatican Observatory. He has a BS in Planetary Science from MIT. Yes, that MIT, where smart people go to school. He also has a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona. So he knows his stuff about science and about religion. And he says there's no contradiction; alien life and alien civilization is completely in keeping with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Consolmagno is a Jesuit (part of the Roman Catholic Church). I have deep respect for them because they think about religion in a very intellectual way. And they believe that practicing secular science is a way to worship God. The Vatican Observatory does a lot of secular science...they have helped discover exoplanets, do research in cosmology, etc.
    Reply
  • rod
    neutrino78x said:
    Rod, I'm not sure what you're asking...abiogenesis is implied by the existence of life. Obviously, at some point, there was something that was not alive, and then it became alive. Otherwise all this life wouldn't be here.

    Are you trying to suggest that finding life outside of Earth would disprove the existence of God, or something? Because it has no bearing on the existence of God. If there is a God, it designed the laws of physics (including those governing the multiverse, so if there is one, it doesn't change this) in such a way that abiogensis would occur and sentient beings would evolve from lower forms of life on at least one planet, if not multiple planets throughout the universe.

    I'm a Deist....but the Roman Catholic Church, at least, teaches that the existence of alien life and alien civilizations does not contradict their beliefs.



    source, Interview with Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno
    Guy Consolmagno is the current head of the Vatican Observatory. He has a BS in Planetary Science from MIT. Yes, that MIT, where smart people go to school. He also has a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona. So he knows his stuff about science and about religion. And he says there's no contradiction; alien life and alien civilization is completely in keeping with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Consolmagno is a Jesuit (part of the Roman Catholic Church). I have deep respect for them because they think about religion in a very intellectual way. And they believe that practicing secular science is a way to worship God. The Vatican Observatory does a lot of secular science...they have helped discover exoplanets, do research in cosmology, etc.

    neutrino78x, you provided some good info to unpack. I shall touch upon a small amount. You said "Rod, I'm not sure what you're asking...abiogenesis is implied by the existence of life."

    Since Louis Pasteur work, the law of biogenesis is *implied*. We can look at the fossil record from Cambrian explosion through the Cenozoic, the law of biogenesis is *implied* in the evolutional tree of life documented, not abiogenesis taking place creating the evolutionary tree of life in the fossil record. I am aware of Guy Consolmagno studies in astronomy and thanks for the link. However, it is clear the goal of cosmology today is to explain the origin of everything - without a creator or creators so no god pulled the trigger on the Big Bang event. Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?
    The livescience report from Sep-2012 was very revealing here. Looking to show life is on Mars today or developed there in the past - is aimed at promoting the law of abiogenesis for the origin of life and that this law is working throughout the universe, thus SETI studies is an example. Rod is not opposed to science here seeking this goal, I just appreciate a more straightforward acknowledgement that this is the primary objective of *origins science* today. My opinion.
    Reply
  • egribble
    NASA has to assume Spacex's plans will not materialise. Spacex is innovative and I believe the starship concept is sheer genius. The idea that a group of people, in the near future, can hop on a starship, spend two and a half years away from Earth, land on Mars and have rocket fuel, manufactured on Mars, awaiting on the surface, is hard for me to think realistic. Re: sample return, I suspect that if evidence of life found, most likely have same DNA with same amino acids as earth life. I believe there has been life exchanged between the two planets as a consequence of meteorite exchange (panspermia) so Mar life prob. no more than extension of earth life.
    Reply
  • rod
    egribble said:
    NASA has to assume Spacex's plans will not materialise. Spacex is innovative and I believe the starship concept is sheer genius. The idea that a group of people, in the near future, can hop on a starship, spend two and a half years away from Earth, land on Mars and have rocket fuel, manufactured on Mars, awaiting on the surface, is hard for me to think realistic. Re: sample return, I suspect that if evidence of life found, most likely have same DNA with same amino acids as earth life. I believe there has been life exchanged between the two planets as a consequence of meteorite exchange (panspermia) so Mar life prob. no more than extension of earth life.

    panspermia does not explain the origin of life like the assumption of the law of abiogenesis. If life developed on Earth or Mars and other exoplanets - the law of abiogenesis is assumed in science today. I will wait for the Mars samples to be returned and studied, just like ALH84001 meteorite was during the Clinton Administration. However, this report suggests the public must be prepared for something here :)
    Reply