NASA’s next Mars moves should focus on bringing chunks of Mars back to Earth, possibly in a hand-off between a robot and an astronaut, according to a new planning document. Involving humans in a space-based rock swap would ensure the sample is protected and Earth is protected — and it would probably make sense anyway, given the timing and budget constraints for NASA’s Mars plans.
NASA's Mars Program Planning Group final report, released Tuesday, lays out several options NASA could pursue to bring samples of Mars rocks to Earth-based scientists, one of the key goals outlined in a major 2011 scientific priorities list. NASA is weighing those options but won’t announce its choice until early 2013, when the president releases his fiscal 2014 budget request.
Orlando Figueroa, who led the MPPG team, told reporters that NASA could start planning the mission’s overall architecture in the 2018 or 2020 launch windows, when Mars is close enough to Earth for a favorable journey. That’s likely to include a new Mars orbiter, in part because NASA has just $800 million to work with through 2018, not enough to launch another rover. The MPPG was created earlier this year in response to cuts in NASA's robotic exploration programs.