The Importance of Planetary Sample Returns
Why are planetary sample returns so important?
While some sophisticated data can be derived from "in situ" measurements taken by rovers and satellites, returned planetary samples allow scientists on Earth to use latest technologies available to maximize the scientific return. The science community has recently seen compelling sample returns, including solar wind particles (NASA's Genesis), comet particles (NASA's Stardust) asteroid particles (JAXA's Hayabusa) and Antarctic meteorites, which scientists collect each Austral summer.
The National Research Council Decadal Study of 2011 recommended that NASA's chief scientific goal should be to return samples from Mars by 2023. Measurements taken by the MER rovers Spirit and Opportunity indicate that Mars had a warmer and wetter climate early in Mars history – conditions in which scientists believe life could have formed on early Mars. But chemical evidence of life in materials like the rocky regolith of Mars can be quite small and difficult for robotic geologists to detect and measure.
Samples from Mars will require special handling protocols from the time the sample collection site is chosen through documentation, encapsulation, and transport to Earth and to NASA's curation facility for allocation to scientist for analysis and study. Because scientists don't yet know how to differentiate an Earth-derived sample of life from a Mars-derived sample of life, scientists are eager to develop protocols that will protect Mars samples from Earth contamination. Landers, collection tools and sample containers could all carry trace amounts of Earthly biology, so must be equipped with decontamination materials and procedures to protect the precious samples.
How do NASA's analog missions, like NEEMO, help scientists develop special sample handling techniques for their exploration programs?
NASA develops tools and techniques during analog missions to ensure the scientific integrity of samples returned from a variety of planetary surfaces both by robots and by human explorers. NASA's returned samples will help scientists understand the formation and evolution of the solar system and determine if life or the conditions for life existed on other plantary bodies. These returned samples will be curated for future generations and allow them to employ advanced techniques not yet available to scientific researchers.
How does this Analog activity fit with NASA's current mission plans?
Regardless of the destination, the work must start now. NASA is developing the technologies and systems to transport explorers to multiple destinations, each with its own unique – and extreme – space environment. Because sample return requirements are mission specific, the handling protocols are designed specifically for the types of questions the scientific community hopes to answer using samples from a particular planetary destination. ARES curation scientists are in collaboration with the mission architecture engineers to develop mission goals that are aligned with the science goals. ARES scientist participate in analog missions for protocol development and science operations development from mission conception to execution and sample return to ensure that the requirements of the scientific community will be met and the scientific return to the public will be maximized.