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How can humans touch Mars? Bring back a soil sample

A new report from NASA suggests that the agency prioritize bringing samples back from Mars to Earth for study. NASA will not make a specific plan for how they'll achieve this goal until after the president releases his 2014 budget in February.  

By Mike / September 25, 2012

This artist's concept shows a rendezvous in Mars orbit between a small container holding Red Planet samples and a vehicle that will fly them back to Earth.



The next steps in NASA's Mars exploration strategy should build toward returning Martian rocks and dirt to Earth to search for signs of past life, a new report by the space agency's Red Planet planning group finds.

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The report, released today (Sept. 25) by the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), lays out a series of options that NASA could employ to get pieces of the Red Planet in scientists' hands here on Earth. The space agency is now mulling those options and could announce its chosen path by early next year, when the White House releases its proposed budget for fiscal year 2014.

"The first public release of what plans, you know, we definitively have would not be until the president presents that budget to Congress in February of 2013," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told reporters today.

NASA put together the MPPG this past March to help restructure its Mars strategy in the wake of cuts to the space agency's robotic exploration program.

The MPPG was instructed to consider NASA's newly constrained fiscal situation and the priorities laid out by the U.S. National Research Council's Planetary Decadal Survey, which was released last year. President Barack Obama's directive that the agency get astronauts to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s was another factor, NASA officials said.

The MPPG's focus on sample-return should thus come as no surprise. It was a top priority of the Decadal Survey, and sample-return could help spur and work in concert with NASA's plans for human exploration of Mars, Grunsfeld said. [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

"Sample-return represents the best opportunity to find symmetry technologically between the programs," he said. "Sending a mission to go to Mars and return a sample looks a lot like sending a crew to Mars and returning them safely."

Humans could even be involved in the sample-return process, according to the MPPG report. Astronauts aboard NASA's Orion capsule, which is currently under development, could intercept the Martian sample in deep space, secure it in a contained environment, and bring it safely down to Earth.

"It is taking advantage of the human architecture, because we anticipate it will be there," Grunsfeld said. "And it potentially solves an issue of, when we return samples, somewhere we have to make sure that the samples are completely contained so there's no chance — remote as it may be — that there is something on Mars that could contaminate Earth."

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