The red planet Mars attracts people in different ways. While one group is working on colonization of the distant planet, others are trying to learn more about it. NASA has pioneered a robotic mission to collect and analyze samples in situ and send the results back to Earth. Its Curiosity rover is there for more than five years and has been working 24X7 to add to the knowledge bank.

BBC reports that NASA and ESA, the two major space agencies, are planning a joint mission to retrieve samples of rocks and soil from Mars for detailed analysis on Earth.

They have signed a letter of intent to this effect, and the mission could be in the form of a joint trip to another planet. Curiosity is engaged in similar activities but is probably handicapped due to the absence of advanced instruments.

Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission

This Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission was announced at a meeting in Berlin, Germany. It will help scientists to learn more about the history of Mars. Detailed studies of this nature could throw light on the question of whether the planet had ever hosted life. If yes, then in what forms. Scientists believe that the available sources are meteorites from the red planet apart from rovers and static landers that had been sent in the past.

The new strategy will be to extract samples from the surface of Mars. These will then be transported to Earth for detailed analysis in laboratories by using powerful instruments that are too bulky to be sent across as part of the onboard equipment of rovers.

NASA has a Mars Sample Return mission lined up for 2020. This envisages drilling into the surface of the planet and collecting the samples in containers.

In the opinion of Dave Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at ESA, every mission must have a specific purpose. It is important that each mission discovers something new which will form the basis for subsequent activities.

Tentative plans

ESA already has its Tracer Gas Orbiter TGO in the orbit of Mars. Its task is to map the distribution of methane gas in the atmosphere of the planet.

The source of this gas could be organisms present in the planet or non-biological sources. This study will help to understand the structure of the planet.

NASA has indicated its intention to link up with ESA and other like-minded agencies to explore the red planet in depth. A suitable design has to be evolved for the mission to extract samples from different locations and bring them back to Earth for detailed studies. The results will be useful when it comes to human settlement on the alien world.