Opinion: Precious samples from Mars have been collected. Now it’s up to Congress to get them back

Opinion: Precious samples from Mars have been collected. Now it’s up to Congress to get them back - Science - News

Unraveling the Secrets of Mars: The Inestimable Value of Returning Martian Samples to Earth


Mars, our closest planetary neighbor, holds significant clues to understanding the past conditions that shaped our own planet’s ability to support life. With evidence suggesting billions of years ago, Mars exhibited environments vastly different from its current dry and cold state, researchers are on the brink of unraveling these mysteries. However, the future of this groundbreaking exploration hinges on the return of valuable samples collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover, which could potentially be left stranded on Mars due to political uncertainties.

The Allure of Mars’ Ancient Past

Orbital data and rovers deployed on the Red Planet over the last two decades have revealed compelling evidence of conditions that once existed, offering critical insights into Mars’ past. The transformation of Mars and its implications for Earth’s future are essential questions that scientists are eager to answer.

Perseverance: A New Chapter in Mars Exploration

Since 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover, designed and built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), has been collecting samples on Mars in preparation for a daring mission called Mars Sample Return. This ambitious endeavor seeks to retrieve these valuable samples and bring them back to Earth for further analysis, but its success is under threat due to budgetary constraints in Washington.

The Treasured Samples: A Journey Through Time

Perseverance, under the guidance of a large team of experts, has collected samples from Jezero crater. This remarkable site features a river channel and an immense delta resembling Earth’s river deltas. While the river channel is now dry, it provides evidence of ancient times when water flowed on Mars. The delta, too, is a testament to a time when vast crater lakes existed.

Decoding Mars’ History: The Role of Advanced Laboratories

To glean insights from these samples, scientists must employ advanced instruments found only on Earth. These powerful tools can analyze the Martian samples in greater detail and with higher precision than those carried directly to Mars, unlocking vital information about Mars’ history and climate.

The Challenges of Mars Sample Return

Mars Sample Return represents one of the most intricate and complex robotic missions in history. The mission requires a massive lander to transport samples from the Martian surface into orbit, as well as a separate spacecraft to retrieve the sample capsule in orbit and bring it back to Earth. Mars Sample Return is the highest priority in US planetary exploration for the upcoming decade, as stated in two major strategic plans by the US National Academy of Sciences.

The Stakes: Scientific Breakthroughs and National Pride

The potential benefits of returning these samples are immense. Unlocking the secrets contained within these Martian relics can provide essential information about Mars’ past and its potential to support life, offering invaluable insights into Earth’s own history and future.

Leaving these samples stranded on Mars would be a significant loss for the scientific community and a disgrace to the nation’s reputation as a leader in deep space exploration. The return of these samples must be a priority, not only for scientific advancement but also for national pride and maintaining our position as pioneers in the field of space exploration.

The Path Forward: A Call to Action

Congress has recognized Mars Sample Return as the top priority of the 2022 Planetary Science Decadal Survey and tasked NASA with developing a realistic plan and funding profile to achieve the return of the samples. It is crucial that this plan, along with adequate funding, is presented to Congress as soon as possible to ensure the successful completion of this mission.

Mars holds the answers to significant questions about our planet’s past and future, and it is our responsibility to unlock these secrets. The potential benefits of Mars Sample Return far outweigh the challenges, making it a worthwhile investment in scientific discovery and national pride.