Launch: No Earlier than 2014

Science instruments: TBD

Related Links
Mars Sample Return (NASA)
International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR)
Here's The Scoop (Space.com)
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Mission Overview

For many years, a mission to return samples from the surface of Mars has been under study by NASA's Mars Exploration Program. In fact, during the late nineties, plans called for the first elements of a sample return mission to be launched in 2003, for a return of samples by 2008.

That all changed with the twin failures in 1998-99 of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. Following a top-to-bottom review of the program, the Mars Sample Return (MSR) project was cancelled, and the effort pushed out many years to account for the reduced level of funding and capabilities expected.

Yet for some who study the Red Planet, the need to return samples from Mars has never been greater. Samples taken directly from Mars could definitively prove that water was (or is) present on the surface, and perhaps even that Life on Mars existed (or exists presently.)

Due to the need for technology development and a large amount of funding for a sample return mission, current plans of NASA's Mars Exploration Program directorate call for the first sample return mission to be launched no earlier than 2014. However, that date is not fixed, and a mission could even be undertaken sooner, such as 2011.

Plans formulated during early nineties for the 2003-2005 timeframe called for an international effort utilizing a pair of rover vehicles (similar to the Mars Exploration Rovers.) The rovers would be designed to collect samples, and bring them to a lander equipped with a solid rocket Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) which would launch the twin sample cannisters into orbit. Finally a French-built orbiting spacecraft would pick up the samples and deliver them back to Earth orbit, where they would rendezvous with a quarantine facility aboard the International Space Station.

One issue that is frequently raised by opponents of Mars Sample Return is the possibility that organisms or other organic materials from Mars could contaminate the Earth and cause problems for life here. (Anybody who has seen movies like Aliens or Species 2 can understand the alleged danger of this.) However, these arguments overlook one fact: materials from Mars as well as all throughout the universe have constantly bombarded the Earth since its creation. The famous martian meteorite ALH84001 (which according to some contains the first evidence of life on mars) is a single example of this.

Surely if we were to be invaded by organisms from Mars, it would have already happened. Perhaps it has, and the life that has flourished on the Earth had originally formed on Mars and been transported here by random geologic events... which would make us all the true Martians.