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NASA's wild plan to bring Martian rocks to Earth

Sharon Gaudin | Jan. 12, 2015
The Mars rover Curiosity team's new leader wants to use robots and a rocket in a three-step plan to deliver samples from Mars to Earth.

NASA Mars ashwin vasavada and rover
Ashwin Vasavada is the new head of NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity program. Credit: NASA

NASA has a wild idea for a mission that will require a robotic tag-team effort, a rocket lifting off from the surface of Mars and a spacecraft that will scoop up Martian rocks orbiting the Red Planet.

Ashwin Vasavada, the new project scientist for NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity project, said scientists are working on a plan to not just send a rover to study rocks on Mars. Vasavada and his team are working to bring some of those rocks back to Earth so geologists can study them here.

Getting those rocks from Mars to Earth won't be an easy task. Vasavada has a plan for that.

Vasavada, a planetary scientist, has been the deputy project scientist for NASA's Curiosity rover since 2004. On Monday, he took over as the project head, succeeding John Grotzinger, who had held the post for seven years. Grotzinger recently became chairman of Caltech's Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences but will remain a member of Curiosity's science team.

"In the future, we'll work to bring [Martian] rocks back to Earth," Vasavada told Computerworld. "I'm looking forward to that. Curiosity is about the most you can do sending tools to Mars. The next step will be to send rocks back to Earth."

To ferry Martian rocks back to Earth will take a multi-pronged plan that might play out over the better part of 10 years.

The next robotic rover is expected to be sent to Mars in 2020, Vasavada said. It is being designed to hunt for signs of past life, as well as to make oxygen and rocket fuel on the Red Planet.

However, it also is being designed to collect rocks and soil samples and store them in a cache. The rover will leave that cache behind as it moves on to conduct other scientific studies on Mars. After that, another NASA mission will send a rocket and a smaller rover to the surface of Mars. That rover will pick up the cache of samples and put them on the rocket, which will launch itself and place those samples in orbit around Mars.

To wrap up the effort, another spacecraft will be launched for Mars that will grab the samples in orbit and bring them back to Earth, where scientists can study them firsthand.

Vasavada said the project is intended to be completed before NASA is expected to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

"This might involve international partners -- a joint effort," he added. "If we continue to send more and more robotics missions to Mars, we'll send better technology. Right now, we're in a little bit of the dark ages, looking at flat monitors with 2D pictures because it's difficult to keep the technology we send into space current with the technology we have on Earth."


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