16 Jul 2008

OU Space Scientist helps to plot Earth’s big Mars mission

Phoenix Lander digging on Mars

Phoenix Lander digging on Mars

The Guardian calls it “…the most audacious and technologically challenging space mission since the Apollo programme landed on the moon.” The International Mars Sample Return Mission would cost £8 billion and would include NASA, the European Space Agency and others to bring back rocks and maybe microscopic samples of life from Mars.

Open University Professor in Planetary Sciences Monica Grady co-chaired the expert panel that wrote the mission proposal. Professor Grady says this mission is vital before sending people on a mission to Mars: "If you can't bring a rock back you are not going to be able to bring people back. There's a real feeling that bringing samples back from Mars is absolutely essential if we are going to continue our Martian exploration programme."

Professor Colin Pillinger

Professor Colin Pillinger

The man behind Britain's unsuccessful Beagle II mission to Mars in 2003, Professor Colin Pillinger of The Open University, told The Guardian’s science correspondent James Randerson that samples returned from the Red Planet would mean scientists would be able to carry out more sophisticated analyses of the rocks, and permit a more detailed search for simple Martian life forms. But it came with a warning:

"Everybody knows this is what you have got to do if you want to really get to the bottom of Mars. 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."

Thirty-one scientists from around the world worked on The International Mars Sample Return Mission proposal for eight months. NASA and ESA will have to decide this autumn whether to pay for the next stage of planning. To stay on timescale, the development of technology will have to start by 2011 for a launch between 2018 and 2023.

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