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Martian rocks could be quarantined on Moon before travelling to Earth

Sarah Knapton
The Mars Sample Return rover will collect capsules left by NASA - Geoff Pugh

The first samples brought back from Mars could be quarantined on the Moon to avoid contaminating Earth with alien life, experts have suggested.

British engineers at Airbus are currently designing a rover to collect Martian rocks and soil that will be left by Nasa’s Mars2020 mission, which is due to launch next year.

The small tubes of Mars dust will be loaded onto a rocket and fired up to orbit where they will be scooped up by another spacecraft, and eventually set down in the Utah desert. 

But scientists are concerned that if something went wrong on re-entry, then Martian bacteria or viruses could be released into the atmosphere, so are considering parking the precious cargo on the Moon. It could then be assessed by astronauts before being brought back down to Earth.

Yesterday, robotics teams carried out vision tests at the Mars Yard at Airbus in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, to make sure the rover will be able to spot the small sample tubes even if they roll into a crack, or become covered in dust. 

Inside the Airbus facility in Stevenage with Adam Camilletti Credit: Geoff Pugh 

Adam Camilletti, of the Mars Sample Return Programme, said: “This is the most complicated mission we’ve ever had to do, by a long way, because you’ve got multiple launches, multiple spacecrafts, it’s inter-agency, you’ve got two rovers. 

“And all the while there is this added concern of planetary protection.  

“When we take something to Mars we mustn't corrupt the Martian ecosystem, there are very strict rules and regulations. But when you’ve got a return to Earth you’ve got the added concern that you don’t want to bring back any possible Martian life back to Earth, in a sort of War of the World’s style.

“So there mustn’t be a direct path by which Martian material could enter the terrestrial ecosystem. There is some speculation about returning it to the Moon, whether that would be better.

“If you can pick it up away from the Earth, it gets rid of your concerns about contamination, as you’ve got 400,000km barrier, so there is some sense to doing that. It’s an additional level of return capture, but it has been discussed.”

The view from the rover's cameras Credit: Airbus

Landing on the Moon would also circumnavigate the problem of keeping the samples cool. Although Martian meteorites have landed on Earth before, they heat up so much on entering Earth’s atmosphere that it wipes out most of the useful information.

But the Moon would be far cooler so it would be easier to keep samples at no more than 86F (30C) and they could be brought back on spacecraft already temperature controlled for humans.

Nasa’s 2020 Rover, is due to arrive on Mars early in 2021 and will begin drilling down into the surface for core samples, as well as gathering dust and rocks and to send home. 

The rover will be hunting at the site of an ancient lake, which experts believe holds the best chance of finding evidence of fossil life. It will be the first time that material from the Red Planet has been brought back to Earth and it could prove for the first time that life once existed on another planet. 

But the second rover, provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) will not launch until 2026, meaning the sample tubes will have lain on the planet’s surface for five or six years, miles apart from each other, before they are collected.

Scientists are concerned that dust storms could cover the 36 tubes, or even blow them into crevices of cracks on the ground. And as there is no GPS on Mars, the rover must use only cameras to locate the samples. 

The rover must use cameras to track down the tubes  Credit: Geoff Pugh 

Matt Lisle, a mission systems engineer, has been burying tubes in the sand at the Airbus Mars Yard to see if the rover can still find them. 

“It’s doing really well,” he said. “We did a demonstration where we basically recreated a big sand drift, so we pulled the sample tube through the sand to create a massive mound, on one side, and it still found it.”

It is hoped the samples will be back on Earth by the early 2030s where they can be analysed by state-of-the art equipment which is too big to carry out tests in situ.

Neither Britain nor the ESA has successfully landed on Mars before and there are still concerns about getting the rover safely down. Engineers have recently sought help from Nasa to land the upcoming ExoMars rover which is due to launch next summer.