NASA's wild new plan to hunt for life on Mars would test SpaceX in ways never done before
So far, all efforts to answer this question have painted a picture of an ancient Mars once covered in water with a thicker atmosphere and warmer temperatures — a world similar to Earth. But no signs of past or present life have been found, yet.
That's why a team of scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in California have come up with a wild notion to do what has never been done before: transport rocks currently on Mars to Earth.
NASA has been seriously considering a sample-return mission like this for a while, ranking it as the highest-priority big-budget mission for the future in the U.S. National Research Center's 2013 decadal survey. The return mission that NASA envisioned in 2013 would cost $6 billion, but the team at NASA's Ames Research Center thinks they might have found a cheaper way.
Enter the "Red Dragon" mission, which would see NASA team up with Elon Musk's company SpaceX, once again, for an epic mission of engineering firsts, including the first time anyone will have launched a vehicle off the surface of Mars.
The project would launch a modified version of SpaceX's current Dragon spacecraft to the Red Planet by as early as 2022, hence the project name "Red Dragon."
The project is "technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist," NASA senior systems aerospace engineer Andy Gonzales told NBC News.
Why we need to get Mars rocks back to Earth
Right now, the only Mars rocks available to scientist are not really rocks at all. They're meteorites that were flung into space by a powerful impact and later plummeted to Earth at blazing speeds of more than 160,000 miles per hour.
However, this sort of rough, bumpy ride might have destroyed any valuable evidence within the rocks that could point to past life on Mars. And while NASA's Curiosity rover is currently drilling into the Martian surface in search for signs of ancient alien life, it has come up empty-handed.
To determine, once and for all, whether Mars once harbored a thriving ecosystem on its watery and warm former self, scientists need to get their hands on Martian rocks that are sitting on the surface right now.
"Red Dragon" would follow NASA's Mars 2020 mission, scheduled to launch a rover similar to Curiosity to Mars in 2020 — if the project is fully funded.
The Dragon spacecraft would then retrieve the samples taken by the Mars 2020 rover, store them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would then launch the samples back to Earth, as described in the graphic below:
Gonzales and his team have not approached SpaceX yet to see if Elon Musk and his company would actually be interested in such a mission. First, the team needs to get NASA to approve the concept and fund the mission, which was first proposed last year.
Despite no funding in site, Gonzales is still actively pushing for the project, which he discussed last week during a NASA Future In-Space Operations working group. Gonzales told NBC News that his team has not estimated the total cost of "Red Dragon" but they suspect it will cost less than NASA's $6 billion mission envisioned in the U.S. National Research Center's 2013 decadal survey.