NASA’s $2.4-billion plan to steal a rock from Mars

Mars1Ed. note: The following is an except from a story in Nature; full story here.

Adam Steltzner rose to engineering stardom in 2012, when NASA’s Curiosity rover plummeted to a perfect landing on Mars, thanks to a daring, fiery manoeuvre designed by his team. Now, all Steltzner wants to talk about is how to clean.

The object of his sanitary obsession is a dark-grey metallic tube about the size of his hand. It sits on a workbench inside a warehouse-like building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where Steltzner works as chief engineer for NASA’s next Mars rover. He needs the tube to be one of the cleanest objects ever created so that the rover can complete its mission.

As early as July 2020, the 1-tonne, 6-wheeled vehicle will blast off from Florida, carrying 43 such tubes on a 7-month trip to the red planet. Once it arrives, the rover will drive across the Martian surface and fill each tube with dirt, rock or air. Then it will seal the tubes, place them on the ground, and wait — for years, or possibly decades — for another spacecraft to retrieve them and fly them back to Earth. It will be humanity’s first attempt to bring back part of the red planet.

If all goes to plan, these will become the most precious extraterrestrial samples ever recovered. Tucked inside one of those metallic tubes could be evidence of life beyond Earth in the form of a microorganism, biominerals or organic molecules.

Which is why Steltzner and his team have to be very, very clean. Just one Earth cell or specks of other contaminants would ruin any chance of unambiguously detecting a Martian microbe…. [More at link, including video]

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