Unpacking the Complexity of Mars Sample Return with JPL's Rob Manning

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The exploration of Mars has captivated the minds of scientists and space enthusiasts for decades. In a recent episode of This Week in Space, hosts Rod Pyle and Tariq Malik were joined again by JPL's Chief Engineer Emeritus Rob Manning, to discuss the challenges, triumphs, and future of Mars missions.

Manning, who has been involved in numerous Mars missions throughout his career, shared his insights on the red planet's exploration. "Mars continues to evolve and water plays a role in the form of ice, and there's vast stores of it underground," he explained. "Mars has turned out to be a very exciting place."

The discussion delved into the current state of Mars exploration, with NASA's Curiosity and Perseverance rovers actively studying the planet's surface. Curiosity, which landed in 2012, confirmed the presence of water on Mars, while Perseverance is collecting pristine samples to be returned to Earth for further analysis.

However, the ambitious Mars Sample Return mission has faced significant challenges, particularly in terms of cost. "Sample return has been, on average, nine years away from launch since the 1960s," Manning revealed. "The trouble with sample return is we have to [...] carry so much stuff to Mars, the vehicles have to get bigger, they get more complex."

The estimated cost of the mission, ranging from $7.5 billion to $11 billion, has raised concerns about its feasibility. Manning emphasized that while the scientific community strongly believes in the importance of returning samples to Earth, the current budget constraints make it difficult for NASA to commit to such a large-scale project.

Despite the challenges, the potential scientific benefits of the Mars Sample Return mission are immense. As Manning explained, the samples collected by Perseverance would provide context and allow for decades of study, unlike the limited information obtained from Martian meteorites found on Earth.

Looking towards the future, the possibility of human missions to Mars adds another layer of complexity. "The first human crews are going to be actually contaminating Mars, not the whole planet, but portions, portions at least where they're at," Manning cautioned. This raises questions about planetary protection and the need to study pristine Martian samples before human contamination occurs.

As the podcast drew to a close, it became evident that the exploration of Mars is an ongoing journey filled with both challenges and opportunities. The scientific community's unwavering dedication to unraveling the mysteries of the red planet continues to push the boundaries of space exploration.

To learn more about the fascinating world of Mars exploration and the insights shared by Rob Manning, be sure to watch the full episode of "This Week in Space" on your favorite podcast platform.

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