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Friday, September 17, 2004

Sample Return Missions Jeopardized by Genesis Failure

ESA sample return mission under development.
ESA sample return mission under development.
Credit: ESA
With the much publicized recent failure of the Genesis capsule, future sampling missions are being called into question. What is the issue, and why should we care?

The holy grail of many geologists and biologists trying to study Mars is actual material from the red planet. Robot geologists are all well and good, but without the ability to sit and run the hundreds of experiments that can be done in a good Earth laboratory, many of the millions of questions we have about Mars simply cannot be answered. A manned mission is arguably the best way to accomplish this. A state-of-the art laboratory could be set up on Mars, and samples that in situ scientists think are interesting could be analyzed. Obviously there are limitations to the equipment that can be brought to Mars, as well as some other things, but most scientists think that this would be the "easiest" way to resolve the critical issues. Second best is actual sample return from Mars, probably carried out at a predetermined location on Mars and returning with anywhere from a few pounds to a few hundred pounds of material. With this wealth of material, scientists would be busy for decades to come poring over the results. Although limited in variety, since it would probably be from only one location on Mars, a sample return mission could go as far as to prove the existence of life. A distant third are mobile rovers such as the Mars Exploration Rovers, carrying limited instrumentation and having physical limitations. The wealth of knowledge that we have gained from the MERs should convince anyone of the cornucopia of information available from a sample return mission.

Despite this potential, the history of sample return missions has a great deal to tell us about their feasibility. The first sample return missions from the Moon were done under great security amid fears of new diseases coming from our neighbor and wiping out life as we know it. Despite this, it is been well publicized that the quarantine failed utterly, and that if there had really been harmful organisms on the Moon, we would all be dead. This sobering thought is mollified somewhat by the fact that the Moon is completely lifeless, and that if life evolved separately on other worlds it probably cannot harm us. In addition, technology has advanced significantly since the 60's.

But, as the crash of the Genesis capsule shows, we are still not perfectly safe. Although the Genesis mission was not designed with security as the focus (Earth is bombarded constantly by similar particles to what Genesis was collecting), it had its samples open to the Earth air before anyone had even seen them. What's worse, many potential sample return missions were designed around the same concept, utilizing parachutes and/or recovery helicopters.

Luckily for us, there are alternatives, and we have made progress since then. In fact, the current plans on the drawing board for sample return missions from Mars are not the Genesis-type design. The current NASA plan will drop a capsule from orbit, but utilizing built-in drag instead of parachutes. In addition, it is built to withstand much more impact force, in that it would take an extremely unlikely event, even more so than parachutes failing, to break it open. More importantly, containment facilities nowadays are well-researched and already exist. From advances in technology and the necessity to contain harmful Earth diseases and man-made pathogens, we know have the ability to almost guarantee that there will be no failure of containment for our Mars samples.

As with many other things, however, politics may drive away any Mars sample return missions in the forseeable future. Already, groups are protesting the missions, some even proposing to build a lab on the Moon to process samples. This incredibly unrealistic proposal highlights the degree of fear that many people feel.

Without public support, we will probably not have sample return missions from Mars anytime soon, even though we now have the ability to guarantee with a high degree of certainty that they would be safe, and incredibly beneficial.

(More info: CNN)

- posted by Brian @ 20:59 EST