Although mankind has been using rockets to hurl our equipment, and ourselves, into the vast expanse of space for 60 years or so, NASA’s delays in fielding their new SLS rocket platform, as well as dramatic footage of the early tests conducted by private space fairing organizations like SpaceX, have made it clear: launching something into space is no easy task.  Unfortunately, once you create an object with the power and engineering necessary to get it out of the earth’s atmosphere, the challenges have only just begun.

The incredible distances we need to cover in space in order to reach even local neighbors like Mars or Venus compounds the complexity, and in turn, the challenge, of successfully placing man-made objects like a rover on the surface of another planet.  Many might be under the false impression that sending a lander or even a satellite to Mars is a piece of cake, after all, we currently have as many as eight operational rovers and orbiters hard at work on and above the Red Planet.  The truth of the matter is, however, getting one of our complicated pieces of hardware to Mars has proven incredibly difficult.  Historically, only a little more than 50% of the missions launched toward our neighboring planet have been considered a success.

With so far to cover, so many variables to account for, and so little margin for error, it should come as no surprise that it’s downright tough to successfully put something together, ignite a massive explosion beneath it, and aim it at another planet in hopes of it arriving safely… and that’s with an entire infrastructure of support staff, specialized equipment, and men and women who’ve spent their entire adult lives working to become masters of the craft.  So, imagine how tough it would be to autonomously launch such a mission from another planet, absent those experts and equipment.

That’s just what NASA is planning to do in the next few years with the Mars 2020 Rover.  The mission itself will be a momentous one, as this new rover promises to be the most advanced piece of equipment ever to reach the surface of the Red Planet (at least that we know of) and the three potential landing spots currently under consideration at NASA each promise to harbor evidence of life, if it ever existed there.  The most groundbreaking effort to be mounted by the 2020 Rover however, involves capturing core samples of Martian soil, to be launched back to Earth for in-depth analysis.

Infographic depicting instrumentation on the Mars 2020 mission; courtesy of NASA

While the rover itself will be equipped with state-of-the-art equipment intended to analyze materials where it is, there are a number of significant benefits to returning a sample to earth for study.  Despite the suite of gear the rover will carry on board, scientists back here on our little blue dot have far more specialized equipment, and more importantly, the ability to interpret information on the fly and allow it to direct them toward conclusions.  Our rovers, advanced as they are, still require human interaction to provide them with commands, which in conjunction with the communications delay created by the rover’s relative distance to earth, makes for a very long, painstaking process to do anything, let alone complex experiments.

Mars 2020 will gather samples for potential return to Earth in the future. It’s time for the sample-analysis community to get serious about defining and prioritizing Mars sample science, and in helping to make the case for the future missions that would get those samples home,” said RSSB co-leader David Beaty, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

How to successfully launch such a sample back to earth, however, is still the subject of serious debate.  For decades, the concept had been tossed about among planetary scientists eager to get their hands on some alien soil, but until recently, that ability remained just outside our technological horizon.

“Well, it’s getting real and the opportunity is there,” Beaty told “But if we’re not careful, it’s possible to squander the opportunity.”

The current plan is to launch the 2020 Rover in, as you might expect, 2020, when it will travel around 34 million miles and touch down on the Martian surface the following year.  From there, it will gather 20 different soil samples over the course of one and a half Mars years (a bit less than three earth years) and seal them in containers it will carry until a subsequent lander arrives to take those samples and somehow launch them back to earth.

Image courtesy of NASA

How it will do that, like the mission to Mars for the follow-on lander itself, has yet to be announced by NASA.  Scientists, researchers, and engineers are currently embroiled in the debate as to exactly how this mission can be carried out; it seems technologically feasible, but the challenges remain immense. Finding a way to accomplish this goal was the subject of discussion at a recent workshop held by the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Curation doesn’t begin when the samples come back. It doesn’t begin when they arrive on Earth. And it doesn’t begin when you’re building a spacecraft,” Francis McCubbin, astromaterials curator within NASA’s Johnson Space Center’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division in Houston, said. “Curation begins at the inception of the mission.”

The task of ensuring no Earth-borne contaminants effect the samples, as well as ensuring no potentially replicating Martian life forms are released into Earth’s ecosystem upon their hypothetical return, would both theoretically be tasked to NASA’s new Planetary Protection Officer, once the position has been filled.  Of course, before any such mission can be undertaken, NASA must first convince law makers that it’s worth the expense.

We are developing the technological ability to collect these samples and bring them back home,” RSSB co-leader, Harry McSween, said. “What is missing is the will. And the will is going to have to come from lobbying by the science establishment, particularly the sample community. I hope you’ll take that message back.”


Image courtesy of NASA