back to article NASA agonizes over plan for Mars rock sample return mission

America's top rock hounds are gathering in Virginia to decide where on Mars they want NASA's next rover to land – not just so it can survey the Red Planet but also so that it can send back useful samples. NASA has already announced that it will send a newish rover to Mars in 2020. The probe will use the same body shell as the …


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  1. John Savard

    Add this to the bill

    A Mars sample return mission would be even more expensive if they followed what I'm about to suggest.

    Build a laboratory to study those samples in isolation... on the Moon.

    Presumably, if the scientists studying those samples do so by teleoperation, from a Moon base ten miles away or so, it will be possible to allow them to return to Earth afterwards.

    There could be life on Mars. While Robert Zubrin is entirely correct that there's no danger of Martian malaria or Martian measles, as many pathogens have evolved in close relation to their hosts, that Martian mold and Martian mildew could see Earth life as just one big pile of sugars, carbohydrates, and possibly even useful amino acids, with utterly no relevant immune defenses, is at least possible.

    There is only one Earth. Turning all life on Earth into green goo as the result of our first steps into space is a possibility that must be avoided.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Add this to the bill

      Arrrhhh, we are all going to die horribly just like those townsfolk in The Andromeda Strain.

      We need fire, and lots of it !

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: Add this to the bill

      The chances of gooifying Earth with a Martian pathogen is immeasurably less likely than something we introduce to Mars killing off everything there or being mistaken for the opening salvo in this solar systems first interplanetary war.

      Now, I'll grant you, a moon lab would be shitloads of fun, but it would provide us with very little useful information regarding any ill effects of alien pathogens. Kind of like studying a penny without knowing what it's for. You can't make much of it unless you can observe the penny in the wild. In a lab it's just a bit of cheap metal with some decoration on it. In the wild it's the building block for all systems of trade and worth killing and dying for (some people say).

      Anything from Mars might be completely benign in a lab, but until it's exposed to solar radiation filtered through our atmosphere while riding on a plane and experiencing severe temperature shifts before being farted on by a maintenance man who ate vegetarian chicken vindaloo for dinner we really won't know what it might be capable of morphing into.

      At the end of the day there's only one way to find out. Besides, an alien 'something' is far less likely to kill us all than a virus or bacteria that's lain dormant under Antarctic ice for millennia while we continued to evolve and previous resistance was tossed out in the process. We're actively looking for those sorts of things right now...

      But the chances of big death are small. Science and exploration are fun and full of risk. If we don't take the risks then we're wasting our time.

      1. IT Drone

        Re: Add this to the bill

        The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one - but still they come?

    3. Martin Budden

      Re: Add this to the bill

      red goo, Shirley?

    4. Kharkov

      Re: Add this to the bill

      First, the chances of a Martian lifeform being able to flourish on Earth, and even outcompete native Earth flora & fauna, to the point that humans won't be able to contain it, are somewhere...

      ...let's say laughable, hilarious, mathematically disharmonious. You're more likely to get hit (repeatedly) by lightning while crossing the street while winning several lotteries and being run down by a baby zebra in the middle of Times Square, New York City.


      On a more constructive note, further planning will reveal if NASA is ready to approach Mars in a 'live-off-the-land' approach, long-favoured by Zubrin himself, or if they'll go with the 'take-a-lot-to-get-a-little-back' approach. A small amount of liquid hydrogen, once taken to Mars, could be turned into much greater amounts of methane & oxygen which would be fuel to get your sample(s) home.

      This is set for the mid-2020's, right? I wonder if a private-sector (SpaceX) Mars sample-return mission will have happened before then? Probably...

      1. lorisarvendu

        Re: Add this to the bill

        Why do people conclude that a life-form brought back from Mars would have little chance of flourishing on Earth, when there has always been concern that Earth bacteria carried on a Rover would contaminate Mars? Surely if there's a possibility of Earth life surviving on Mars, the opposite is as likely?

        1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

          Re: Add this to the bill

          there has always been concern that Earth bacteria carried on a Rover would contaminate Mars? Surely if there's a possibility of Earth life surviving on Mars, the opposite is as likely?

          The worry about contamination of Mars by Earth bacteria is largely a selfish one, to avoid spoiling the science. It would be upsetting to to get excited about Curiosity discovering life, then to later find out that it was just Earth life that had hitched a lift. The chances of such life thriving enough to do harm (to what?) are negligeable.

          Any Martian bacteria that makes it back is unlikely to outcompete native stuff, even assuming that the transport craft isn't swallowed by a small dog...

  2. Don Jefe

    Something's Wrong

    When finding answers warrants the execution of a career if the 'correct' answers aren't found something is terribly wrong. I'm quite certain you can't do science any more incorrectly than preselecting your answer. We can do that right here in the El Reg comments section and save everybody several fucktons of money, and be just as correct as an actual Mars mission would be.

    The 'correct' answer in any scientific study is whatever the evidence says the correct answer is. Ones opinion on the subject is wholly immaterial. I really, really hope nobody involved in this feels their career is in jeopardy if they don't find the answers everybody wants. There's nary a point in going if that's the case, we'll never be able to trust the findings.

    1. Dom 3

      Re: Something's Wrong

      I think you miss the point. The "correctness" at stake here is not what the scientific answers are, it's choosing an interesting destination. Trying to avoid landing in the Martian equivalent of the Sahara.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: Something's Wrong

        But maybe the answer is that it all makes the Sahara look teaming with life and Mars was only ever a dead rock.

        Hopefully it's more interesting than that, but I suspect anything really interesting of extra-terrestrial nature is on a planet in the Goldilocks zone of another Star.

        1. MacroRodent Silver badge

          Re: Something's Wrong

          "maybe the answer is that it all makes the Sahara look teaming with life and Mars was only ever a dead rock"

          That we know already. Any spot on Earth is more hospitable to life than any spot on Mars (with the possible exception of the crater of an erupting volcano).

      2. Don Jefe

        Re: Something's Wrong

        No, I get that selecting the landing site 'most likely' to have evidence of life is the task at hand. But there aren't any 'wrong' choices. Discovering what's there, or isn't there, should be the the success metric, not finding a specific something.

        Finding nothing is just as useful, albeit less exciting, as finding something. You've got to know where not to look to know where to look in the future. Barring some friendly Martian towing a rover back to its home/garage we're effectively picking at random based on our understanding of life as we know it. It's quite likely, probable even, that any life we find will be rather different than we expect. Which is exciting in its own right.

        1. Dom 3

          Re: Something's Wrong

          Of course there are "'wrong choices"! If they land somewhere where there is no geological evidence of liquid water, it's a balls-up.

    2. Mike Smith

      Re: Something's Wrong

      Absolutely bang on. That's exactly how scientific studies should be done.

      But the problem arises when people whose scientific knowledge barely registers on the scale are in positions to make decisions. Kind of like the feeling that the millenium bug was overblown because the world didn't collapse in a heap.

      If I were God Emperor of the Universe, I'd prohibit people from having any authority over things they know nothing about, with a codicile that anyone with a financial background would be automatically barred from a CEO position in anything other than a finance company.

      That ain't gonna happen, I know. But it's nice to dream, sometimes.

      Have a pint, 'cos it's Friday.

  3. mr.K


    If one do go to Mars to pick up something, it'll better be Spirit. It deserves nothing less!

    1. Mage Silver badge

      Re: #bringSpiritBack

      That one XKCD Spirit always nearly brings a tear to the eye.

  4. TaabuTheCat

    Serious question

    What are they *hoping* to find in the samples that would justify the expense/risk of this sort of mission. I'm all for understanding planet lifecycles and core science (pardon the pun), but shouldn't we be spending money learning how to get further, faster so we don't have to limit ourselves to close-in dead (for us at least) planets to explore?

    Sometimes I think we set the bar too low, and if we're going to risk money and time, let's take the risk for something more than a box of rocks. Maybe I'm proposing we run before we walk, but will bringing back samples from Mars help us get to someplace inhabitable any sooner?

    1. mr.K

      Re: Serious question

      *downer alert*

      Nah, you are suggesting that we go to space before we walk. Traveling to another solar system is a mind boggling task that we don't have any ability to execute whatsoever. If we dedicated our world's total production capacity of manhours, resources, "brainhours" etc, i.e. used all of it leaving nothing to keep us alive and entertained. Then we could probably after a few years figure out a way to send something out there that send a few humans out to the nearest star and the ability to go back again. It would require them to reproduce underway to mantain the crew since we are talking about over a hundred years long trip.

      Space exploration is pretty much dictated by what current technology is able to provide. It does in itself push the envelope on technology, but is still dependent on whatever is available of technology. To go to Mars is probably within reach if we really really wanted to, but anything else we just have to wait to see.

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: Serious question

      It doesn't matter a pin if they find anything or not. The mission is to see what's there and whatever that happens to be is what they hope to find. Even if it's nothing.

      As far as propulsion, you're right, we need to work on that as well, but to present the issue as one or the other is a false choice. Both are equally important. There's no point in getting somewhere if we find out there's nothing there, or that whatever's there is instantly deadly.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Serious question

        I agree in that there is a point in getting somewhere... if there's nothing there, then we can scratch that off our list and look elsewhere. Or use it as a stepping stone to go somewhere. If it's instantly deadly, we know not to go there again. We shouldn't let the fear of nothing or the fear of death stop us. If we had, the Earth would still be flat, Europe would be overcrowded, and North and South America would still be a concept. (Ok... nothing wrong with that in hindsight, but you get the point). So let's go climb that hill and see what's on the other side, visit that planet and see what happens... time to hit the Glory Road.

  5. Anonymous John

    Why does this need two Rovers?

    Couldn't the vehicle with the ascent stage take a core sample?

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Why does this need two Rovers?

      Agreed. This seems unnecessarily complicated. Unfortunately, NASA has an overabundance of engineers that have never worked in a 'real' cost driven environment and they're always aiming for the stars (Ha!) in their plans. On one level that's fine, but on the funding side that's not so great.

      I'm willing to admit there may very well be eminently valid reasons for three craft. But the Creationist senator from Texas won't be interested in hearing those reasons, he'll just say 'do it with two craft, for (x) dollars or don't do it at all'.

      Strategies and tactics to present and defend huge price tags in the face of adversity and stupidity is one of the most important things I drill into my interns. While there are quite a few of my previous interns at NASA, there aren't enough in sufficiently senior roles to dictate how you tell somebody you want millions and millions of dollars :)

      1. DropBear

        Re: Why does this need two Rovers?

        But the Creationist senator from Texas won't be interested in hearing those reasons, he'll just say 'do it with two craft, for (x) dollars or don't do it at all'.

        NASA Tech 1: "What's the bare minimum we can do this with?"

        NASA Tech 2: "Two craft."

        NASA Tech 1: "We need to pull a Scotty - ask for three or four to make sure we can get it done with the two we'll get granted..."

        1. Don Jefe

          Re: Why does this need two Rovers?

          Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of that going on. But said Senator knows that too. It's a bad practice to do that all the time, precisely because said Senator would much prefer to keep money going to his buddies (my clients) who are working on missions that everybody knows will never launch. That's been SOP for 30+ years.

          NASA has had the shit kicked out of them for so long they've lost, or forgotten, the ability to sell a project with confidence. It has become a perpetual 'please sir, may I have some more' scenario.

          I'm in no way knocking NASA's abilities, they're displaying classic signs of abuse. It really fucking sucks too, but anyone who has ever been abused knows you've either got to flee the abuser, or poison/stab/shoot/smother/drown or otherwise eliminate the abuser. But it's really, really hard to do either of those things.

    2. Steven Roper

      Re: Why does this need two Rovers?

      I'd say the reasoning behind this methodology goes something like this:

      The first stage, sending out a sample-collecting rover, is a bog-standard Mars mission, something we have experience with now and can carry out with a high degree of confidence. This rover, like Curiosity, would have analytical instruments on board so scientists could examine the samples in situ, so any "inert chunks of sandstone" can be tossed back and anything that looks like it might harbour signs of life or otherwise be of interest added to the cache for return.

      But this process might take years before turning up something worth sending back, something that the instruments on board can't resolve - whatever that might be. If we sent an ascent stage with that first rover, that ascent module is going to be sitting on the Martian surface under durance of a hostile environment possibly for years. That's a lot of time for things to go wrong - dust clogging up engines, for example, or getting buried in a sandstorm, or blown over. Also, it's plenty of time for the volatile fuel the ascent stage needs for liftoff to leak and evaporate into the thin Martian atmosphere while it's sitting there.

      Doing it this way also allows us to keep an open-ended schedule on the collecting mission. If the rover finds nothing of interest for 5 years, it's not a problem - we just keep looking until we find something worth sending back or the rover fails, whichever comes first. If it turns out to be the latter case, it's still not a wasted mission, because we were still able to do some good science with the rover while it was there.

      If the rover has been able to collect some ambiguous samples that merit closer study, sending the ascent stage then means that the ascent vehicle is nice and fresh on arrival, and can make use of updated technology developed since the first rover launch. Which means much better odds for a successful lift-off and retrieval, than with a vehicle using older technology that has been sitting out collecting Martian dust and evaporating its hydrazine for X years.

      The reason for a second pickup rover then becomes obvious: the ascent vehicle might have to land kilometres away from the collection rover. Perhaps the rover is in a crater or amongst large rocks which make a clean landing difficult or impossible. Or the rover has dumped a sample cache or three somewhere along its route in order to save power by not having to lug around a bloody great box of rocks on its back.

      So having a second vehicle trundle out to the collection rover, or to wherever it's dropped its sample caches, makes sense in that regard. It also allows the second rover to be optimised as a taxi rather than a mobile laboratory. Current "laboratory" rovers have a top speed measured in centimetres per minute, to reduce the risk of tipping over or becoming trapped, and to ensure they don't miss anything of interest. A "taxi" rover could have its path pre-mapped by the first rover to avoid any obstacles and allow the taxi rover to run at a higher speed. This would allow it to perform its specific function much more effectively, since its only task is to pick up a box of rocks and return to the ascent stage.

      So on consideration, while this mission might seem unnecessarily complex at first glance, it shows that the engineers and scientists involved have considered these issues and come up with quite an elegant solution.

      1. HelpfulJohn

        Re: Why does this need two Rovers?

        "If the rover finds nothing of interest for 5 years, it's not a problem - we just keep looking until we find something worth sending back "

        The problem with this approach is obvious: governments don't last five years. Senator Thicko is working towards either padding his retirement fund or renewing his peculating licence by getting re-elected by about year two of his term. (Probably both). Maybe sooner. Presidents likewise.

        This means that the committee that originally agreed to the plan will, apart from a few longer-lasting elders, essentially be renewed every few months. Which means NASA's plans will essentially be "re-engineered" (or, in English, have their budgets cut a bit more) every few months. Getting agreement for a long-term plan is never going to work.

        True, totalitarian regimes may be able to plan for more than two weeks ahead, but not many of those care about sampling Mars.

        Apollo only worked because the payoff was planned to be within the residency of Senators already in office. Had it been sold as a twenty-year plan it would have never got off the drawing boards.

        Today, even "within this decade" is too long for most politicians. Either the payoff happens in this session of the Parliament or the plan is dropped.

        Many worthy projects have been killed because their success would have been in the terms of *other* *people* not those presently occupying the seats.

        Politicians are, as a class, a selfish, myopic bunch.

        As a class, they have none.

        "Rocheworld" by R. Forward has a brilliant caricaturing of a "typical Senator" and his reaction to a long-term plan. It's a very good book. His "Dragon's Egg" is even better.

        1. Mark 85 Silver badge

          Re: Why does this need two Rovers?

          Quote: "The problem with this approach is obvious: governments don't last five years. Senator Thicko is working towards either padding his retirement fund or renewing his peculating licence by getting re-elected by about year two of his term. (Probably both). Maybe sooner. Presidents likewise."

          It's not about padding the retirement fund.. get elected one term and you're into the fund for life. It about power and putting your (in this case the Senator's) beliefs in to play. These guys are just as hard-nosed about power and as fanatical about pushing their beliefs as any Al-Qaeda type. What's sad is that they keep getting re-elected because of the pork barrel being rolled to their state.

      2. Dom 3

        Re: Why does this need two Rovers?

        "the engineers and scientists involved have considered these issues and come up with quite an elegant solution". Quite. It's like the sky-crane landing system for Curiosity. Seems utterly bonkers at first glance but is, of course, a logical solution.

  6. ocratato

    We need a broader survey of Mars

    So far we have only landed 4 rovers and a couple of stationary probes. The rovers have only been able to explore a few kilometres.

    What we need is hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of small, simple explorer rovers that cover much more of the planet. These can then be used to explore places that would normally be too dangerous, like the bottom of canyons.

    1. Kharkov

      Re: We need a broader survey of Mars

      Or people walking around (in suits). That'd do it too. Of course, once you've got people there then you've got...

      Well, pretty much everything really...

  7. phuzz Silver badge

    For an in depth look at previous ideas for Mars sample return, may I suggest the Beyond Apollo blog.

    For example:

    This seems to be a mission that NASA/JPL have been wanting to do for a long time now.

    >>>>>> we need a rocket/space icon.

  8. chris 143

    What's the range on a rover?

    Given the expensive bit is getting it back into orbit...

    Couldn't you send several rovers to different locations (probably still have to be within a few hundred miles but still, they don't have to be fast they just have to be able to run for a couple of years). Have them all arrive back to a central location. Then launch a whole range of samples back into orbit.

  9. strum

    "The most important thing for this spacecraft is not so much to learn about the rocks on Mars, but to learn enough to know if those rocks have the stuff in them that you want to bring back to Earth."

    It's also rather important to establish the concept of a return journey - even if it's only for a few pebbles.

  10. willi0000000

    i sometimes wonder if it wouldn't be better to send a really big rover, say with room for two and a kitchen and bath, remote operate it until you find an interesting site. now you send a couple of geologists, or a geologist and a chemist who wouldn't care if they never get home because they have an entire planet to play with. you know that there are qualified people who would jump at the chance to go if the risks were even slightly moderated.

    drop them a supply rocket every now and again and you have everything you need for in situ exploration and analysis. of course, you might have to eventually send a civil engineer, with a talent for actual construction, and probably a nurse-midwife too.

    [yes, i know i'm mad but i would have gone twenty years ago]

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