How We Will Explore Mars After the Curiosity Rover

In the coming months, NASA must decide whether it will launch a flagship mission to Mars in 2018. Such a mission would likely collect and return Martian rocks to Earth for examination. 

What's the Latest Development?

In the next four to six months, NASA must decide whether it will plan a flagship mission to Mars for the 2018 launch window, begging the question what such a mission would look like. As the new rover Curiosity executes daily missions on the surface of the Red Planet, NASA planners believe that sending a mission to collect and return Martian rock to Earth is the best step forward, both scientifically and in terms of eventually sending humans to Mars: "Sending a mission to go to Mars and return a sample looks a lot like sending a crew to Mars and returning them safely. There’s a parallelism of ideas there," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

What's the Big Idea?

Collecting rocks from Mars and returning them safely to Earth is a step toward the Obama administration's stated goal of working toward a manned mission to the Red Planet. One worry of such a mission--that Martian rocks could contaminate Earthly ecosystems--could provide an opportunity to bring astronauts one step closer to setting down on the foreign planet's surface: "Having astronauts rendezvous with a robotic spacecraft in space to seal off any potential contaminants could be a useful way to team the human exploration and planetary science programs together."

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