We’ve all seen it in the plot of cheesy sci-fi: Scientists find something in space that seems harmless so they decide to bring it back to a space station, or even Earth, to study. Things go wrong, and eventually everyone dies. Now, NASA and the European Space Agency have declared their intent to do something very similar, taking samples of Martian soil and bringing them back to Earth.
The two agencies are currently planning out exactly how such a complex task will be performed, and it’s going to take a minimum of three different missions to make it happen. First, NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover mission will send its vehicle to the Red Planet where it will collect samples of the dusty soil and load it into tiny canisters. Then, ESA’s ExoMars rover, which will arrive on Mars in 2021, is going to drill deeper into the planet to search for the faint traces of previous life on the planet. Pulling off those missions without a hitch will be difficult enough, but it’s the final steps that will be the biggest hurdles to getting Mars soil back to our planet for study.
Collecting and organizing the samples is one thing, but launching them from the Mars surface back to Earth is a challenge of an entirely different magnitude. First, a Mars Ascent Vehicle would need to take off from the Martian surface and enter into orbit — that’s something that’s never even been attempted before — and then a third vehicle would launch from Earth to meet up with the orbiter and take possession of the soil samples before cruising back to Earth.
It’s an incredibly complex series of missions and there’s very little room for error. If the samples are lost — either due to a mishap with the ascent vehicle or a fumble during the handoff in orbit — there’s really no backup plan to speak of. Thankfully, NASA and ESA have had a pretty good track record as of late, and hopefully the days of miscalculated data leading to catastrophe are now behind them.
Once the soil samples make it back to Earth they would be placed in quarantine to ensure that a sci-fi horror movie doesn’t become reality in NASA’s labs. That sounds great, but there’s still a whole lot of stuff that has to go perfectly right for scientists to get to that point.