From the department of things-we-should-have-learned-from-science-fiction-movies comes another story that, in no way, could go completely, horribly wrong. NASA has released a complex and extremely technically challenging plan to collect rock and soil samples from Mars and, through an incredibly ambitious feat of technological prowess, bring the soil back to Earth where it will be quarantined. Why quarantined? Because if this mission succeeds, the samples might be full of Martian microbes. Yes, NASA wants to bring Martian microbial life back to Earth where there is not a single chance that some weird space-disease, to which we have absolutely zero immunity, could ever get out and run rampant.
The plan is a joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and will be part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. NASA says that there is no way to thoroughly investigate the soil with the rovers currently on Mars, and the surest way to discover what, if any, life lives or lived on the red planet is to take it back to home base. To be fair, chances are no actual microbes will be among the samples sent back to Earth, but hopefully, there will be fossils of microscopic Martians. But just in case, the samples will be quarantined and designated as “biohazard level 4,” which would be a great name for the movie based on this act of extreme hubris should any of us survive. A lead member of ESA’s Mars Sample Return team Sanjay Vijendran says:
“It is extremely unlikely that we will bring back living organisms, and even if we do, it is unlikely they will be harmful. However, we cannot take that for granted, and every measure to make sure the samples are sealed and pose no threat to the planet will be taken.”
But regardless of how painful a death it ends in for 99% of us, how they’re going to pull it off it pretty cool. For the full effect, here’s the objectively correct soundtrack.
First, in early 2021 NASA’s new Mars 2020 Rover will land in the Jezero crater in the Syrtis Major region of Mars. It will roll around the surface of Mars, scooping up soil samples and putting the samples into small metal tubes, sealed and left in caches in designated sites.
Next, another robotic craft built by ESA, dubbed a fetch rover, will touch down and collect the caches of metal tubes and place them into a small football-sized payload and deliver them to a waiting US rocket which will blast the samples into space.
At the same time, a third probe named the Earth-Return Orbiter will have arrived and begun an orbit around Mars. The orbiter will intercept the rocket on its way around the planet and collect the samples as it begins its trip back to Earth. Once it gets back to our beautiful planet, currently unsoiled by weird alien diseases, it will fling the payload of soil samples towards the Utah desert, where it will be picked up and placed in quarantine.
Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at the University of Westminster, London. says:
“The mission involves an incredibly complex sequence of maneuvers, and there’s so much that could go wrong. However, if we want to find evidence that there was once life on Mars, this is the sort of thing we are going to have to do. It will be worth the effort.”
After that, who knows what will happen? Maybe nothing, maybe something cool, or maybe this will be known by the survivors as the great Rube Goldberg suicide machine in space. I guess we’ll see.