Mars has been getting a lot of attention recently, with the Phoenix Lander sending back the most exciting Martian images outside of "War of the Worlds". But a global team of scientists is already planning an even more awesome mission - getting there and back again.
All the investigative missions so far have been one-way trips, and we count ourselves lucky if the probes even survive that. This strategy makes the missions much likely to succeed (with a minimum of "Carrying and igniting huge chemical explosive rockets" stages) but also limits the experiments that can be done. The craft have to carry every instrument they want to use along with them, and in the case of problems - like the recent Phoenix oven short-circuit - you're slightly outside of the maintenance callout zone.
The next stage is a mission capable of returning samples to Earth, the greatest gift to interplanetary scientists outside of Santa stuffing stockings with moonrocks instead of coal. The returned rocks would then become the focus of every planetary scientist on Earth, and subjected to the kind of intense analysis that would make Sherlock Holmes look like Ray Charles.
Such a mission presents incredible new challenges - landing something capable of (at least partly) taking off again, redocking with the orbital craft that delivered it and then coming on home. It's a spectacular vision and one that might unify the world's space agencies. Not through co-operation, or camaraderie, or even the realization that interplanetary exploration makes the artificial boundaries of state seem ridiculous. No, they'd do it because it costs too much.
Professor Colin Pillinger, at the Open University, who led Britain's unsuccessful Beagle II mission to Mars in 2003, told the Guardian that returning samples would allow scientists to carry out much more sophisticated analyses on the rocks and permit a more detailed search for simple Martian life forms. "Everybody knows this is what you have got to do if you want to really get to the bottom of Mars," he said. But he said avoiding contamination would be extremely difficult.
"There's a big caveat when you start playing with Mars, and that's planetary protection. You have to be very careful not to bring anything back that might be harmful to Earth," he said. "Your mission has to be guaranteed, and I really mean guaranteed, to get into the Earth's atmosphere without damaging itself."
Samples have been returned successfully from space by robotic vehicles, but the first attempt to bring samples from beyond the moon ended disastrously. The Genesis probe, which carried particles collected from the solar wind, crash landed in the Utah desert in September 2004. If the returning spacecraft blew up on re-entry scientists could not be sure that Martian life forms on board would be destroyed in the blast. It would also be impossible to know what they would do to life on Earth.
The estimated budget is eight billion dollars, or as you might picture it, four times the gross domestic product of North Korea. This truly staggering bottom line could force agencies from around the globe to work together. That sound you can hear is utopian science fiction authors crying - because even as mankind reaches for space, it's only capitalism that can force us to put aside our differences.
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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