American rocket engineers are being urged to push their next Mars mission to the limits of technological performance. Space scientists have told NASA they want the agency to “dream big” to ensure their new robot rover, scheduled for launch in 2020, visits a maximum number of sites to increase chances of uncovering signs of ancient life on Mars.
Rock samples – hopefully bearing fossils – would then be left in caches on the Martian surface, to be collected several years later and returned to Earth in a complex series of robot “sample return” missions costing more than $10bn.
US scientists are concentrating on rocks formed in watery environments billions of years ago, when the planet was much more Earthlike. These rocks, as they formed, would have preserved remnants of any life that flourished before the planet’s atmosphere evaporated and its surface water boiled off.
It will be the task of the next, as yet unnamed, Mars rover to drill into promising sediments [and] collect samples.
“We will have the strictest quarantine conditions enforced when we collect and store those samples,” said [NASA’s Matthew] Golombek. “It will be worth the effort and expense, however. This is going to be our best chance of finding out if life evolved independently on another world and that life here is not just a lucky accident.”
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