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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.  

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Exactly when a Martian sample could come down to Earth remains up in the air. But NASA is considering launching the first enabling mission along this path in 2018, or perhaps 2020, Grunsfeld said. A complicating factor is that NASA has just $800 million or so to work with for the project through 2018.

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That's "not enough to encompass the rover options that we talked about," said MPPG team lead Orlando Figueroa. "That drives you to either launching an orbiter first, or delaying to the next opportunity, 2020, to start with a rover."

The report also provides a variety of options for gathering and returning Red Planet samples.

For example, it could all be done with a single launch, which would carry a soil-collecting rover, a vehicle that would blast the samples off the Martian surface and an orbiter for sample rendezvous and return. Or these payloads could be divided among two or three launches, to spread cost and risk around, Figueroa said.

The MPPG report discusses lofting the single-shot mission as early as 2024, aboard NASA's huge Space Launch System rocket. NASA wants the SLS to make its first test flight by 2017 and to be ready to carry crews by 2021.

NASA's robotic Mars exploration strategy has already begun shifting from "follow the water" — exemplified by NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers — to searching for habitable environments, which the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover is currently doing in the Red Planet's Gale Crater.

Sample-return is the logical next step in NASA's unmanned activities at Mars, Figueroa said.

"This is really the search for evidence of past life," he said. "And the options that we are putting forth is, What are the options that NASA could have available to pursue it in the most aggressive way possible?"

NASA has two robotic Mars missions on the docket before the first step toward sample-return would launch. The Maven orbiter is slated to blast off next year to study the Red Planet's atmosphere, while a mission called InSight will launch in 2016 to probe Mars' core.

Follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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