Scientists from NASA explain why they are unable to examine Mars samples aboard the International Space Station

Scientists from NASA explain why they are unable to examine Mars samples aboard the International Sp ...

At some point in the 2030s, NASA's Mars Sample Return Mission aims to return 30 samples of Mars soil, rock, and atmospheric gas collected by its Perseverance rover.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reached out to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory with some of the public's most pressing questions, and Mars Sample Return scientists Michael Meyer and Lindsay Hays responded.

The main aim of NASA's Perseverance mission is to not only discover more about the Red Planet's composition, but also to look for evidence of ancient microbial life. China's space agency is attempting to beat them to it, though it will collect a smaller sample set than the Perseverance mission.

Will Mars samples from NASA be safe on Earth?

Readers of The Inquirer asked some pertinent questions, including whether NASA has assigned a probability for the likelihood that we will discover signs of life on Mars.

"Mars has been shown to be inhospitable, and that has changed our opinion of the possibility of forward contamination (how likely is it that we would contaminate Mars)," said the NASA scientists. "In our view, the extreme environment of Mars does decrease the likelihood that there will be life on Mars."

"The fact that Mars meteorites are landing on Earth constantly suggests that we have little to worry about," they continued. "We are nevertheless unsure of what we may be doing so we will take all precautions and keep Mars material indoors until we prove that they are safe."

Meyer and Hays explained that the samples collected by Perseverance would be kept in a biosafe facility until the 2030s, where they will be stored, sorted, and selected for eventual return to Earth.

NASA scientists said they "are treating the samples with the utmost care as if they were not," and that they "are proving that they are."

Why aren't Mars samples taken from the International Space Station?

The scientists also stressed that samples must not be sterilized before being returned to Earth, as this would mean "a significant part of the scientific investigation would be lost". An example of this, they said, would be the destruction of organic compounds that might be useful biosignatures, which is one of the primary reasons for returning samples.

Because the International Space Station (ISS) lacks the necessary equipment, and the difficulties of extracting samples in space might hinder the science.

The Mars Perseverance rover from NASA is pushing the boundaries of space exploration and analysis. These include the first controlled flight of a helicopter on another planet and the first exploration of the red planet's main mission area, known as the "Hawksbill Gap."

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