updated - September 22, 2017 Friday EDT
Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center have come up with a plan to bring back Mars samples using a modified version of SpaceX's Dragon capsule called "Red Dragon."
To keep costs and complexity down, the concept calls on using SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket and a modified version of its Dragon cargo capsule.
The mission, which remains a concept with no concrete plans to carry it out yet, would have a Dragon capsule deliver soil samples from the Red Planet collected by the 2020 Mars Rover. The samples would then be returned to Earth for analysis.
"Equipped with arms, the Dragon could grab the samples (or, if all else fails, collect its own) and attach them to a launch vehicle that sits atop the capsule," Popular Science said. "The launch vehicle would send the sample back to Earth."
Speaking at last week's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group, Andy Gonzales of NASA's Ames Research Center said the Red Dragon concept is "technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist," as quoted by PS.
It may sound like a lot of trouble but bringing back rocks and dirt from Mars does have important scientific implications. Cold and dry as it may be, evidence from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity suggests Mars was once capable of supporting life billions of years ago.
"Many scientists therefore believe life may have evolved on ancient Mars," NBC said.
The life-on-Mars question is still up for debate to this day. But if the Red Dragon concept pushes through, SpaceX may help settle it by handing samples to scientists for study.
Although SpaceX wasn't involved in the concept, CEO Elon Musk did throw his support behind NASA's Red Dragon idea. The tech billionaire even suggested that the Dragon capsule is capable of going on complex missions further out into the solar system.
In expendable mode, Falcon Heavy can send a fully loaded Dragon to Mars or a light Dragon to Jupiter's moons. Europa mission wd be cool.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 14, 2015
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