This artist's concept shows a sample of Martian rocks and soil blasting off the Red Planet's surface, destined for scientists' labs here on Earth.
updated 9/28/2012 1:55:15 PM ET 2012-09-28T17:55:15

Over the next few months, NASA will map out a strategy for returning bits of Martian rock and soil to Earth, so scientists can study them for signs of past Red Planet life.

That ambitious goal should drive the space agency's next steps at Mars, according to a report released Tuesday by the Mars Program Planning Group. The report also lays out several ways Mars sample-return can be accomplished over the next decade or two, and NASA is reviewing those options now.

The agency may reveal its chosen path in February, after the White House releases its federal budget request for fiscal year 2014, NASA officials said Tuesday. In the meantime, here's a brief rundown of the scenarios they're looking at.

Multiple launches
All the major options proposed by the Mars planning group share three basic components in common: a sampling rover, a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) for blasting the collected rock and soil off the Red Planet surface and a return orbiter, which will snag the samples in space and ferry them to Earth's neighborhood.

In one scenario, these three pieces are all launched separately, with a small "fetch" rover riding along with the MAV. As its name suggests, the fetch rover will carry Red Planet dirt from the sampling rover back to the MAV. [ 7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars ]

This strategy has the advantage of spreading costs and technical challenges across three missions — which could each be at least two years apart, since Mars launch windows come about every 26 months — according to the planning group report.

Another option is to consolidate into two launches. The sampling rover would ride alone, while another liftoff would carry the MAV, fetch rover and return orbiter.

In this case, the orbiter would likely have to be powered by solar electric propulsion (SEP), to cut down on weight. The amount of liquid propellant needed for a traditionally powered spacecraft would be quite heavy.

A single launch
Alternatively, all the pieces needed for Mars sample-return could be lofted in a single shot, the report says.

In this case, the sampling rover would carry an integrated MAV with it, eliminating the need for a fetch rover. Again, the return orbiter would be an SEP craft, which creates thrust by accelerating electrically charged atoms or molecules.

The single-launch option would eliminate some mission complexities, such as coordinating the meetup of samples with the MAV. And it would reduce the project's overall cost by cutting out a launch or two. But this scenario has the highest peak-year costs, the report states.

"They all have their pluses and minuses," Orlando Figueroa, team leader of the Mars Program Planning Group, said of the 1-, 2- and 3-launch options.

This artist's concept shows a rendezvous in Mars orbit between a small container holding Red Planet samples and a vehicle that will fly them back to Earth.

"It gives you multiple ways to look at this problem, consistent with budget concerns, consistent with opportunities for collaboration, more technology, et cetera," Figueroa told reporters Tuesday. "And that's what we tried to do — bring all of those options forth to NASA for consideration."

Multiple rovers?
The above options assume that NASA will pick suitable sampling sites using existing data. But the MPPG report also outlines a path that allows for more on-the-ground research, which some scientists may feel is warranted for such an ambitious and expensive project.

"Preservation of biological signatures is rare on Earth, and investigations at multiple sites on Mars dramatically improves the probability of identifying biologically relevant samples," the report states. [ 5 Bold Claims of Alien Life ]

If NASA chooses this course, multiple rovers would be sent to investigate several different sites. Based on the rovers' findings, scientists would eventually select one site for sample return. Mars material would be delivered to Earth via an MAV and return orbiter, as discussed above.

Multiple rovers would incur greater costs, but building identical robots off a production line could help keep the price tag down, the report says.

The human touch
In 2010, President Barack Obama charged NASA with getting astronauts to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s.

The space agency thinks this goal dovetails nicely with its sample-return ambitions, and it sees plenty of room for collaboration between its robotic and human exploration programs in this arena.

For example, astronauts aboard NASA's Orion capsule — which is still under development — might be dispatched to intercept the return orbiter in deep space and bring the Mars samples down to Earth, officials said Tuesday.

This approach would eliminate the need to harden the sample capsule for Earth entry, since it would land aboard Orion. And an astronaut inspection would also help ensure the Mars sample is adequately contained, officials said.

"It is taking advantage of the human architecture, because we anticipate it will be there," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

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"And it potentially solves an issue of, when we return samples, somewhere we have to make sure that the samples are completely contained so there's no chance — remote as it may be — that there is something on Mars that could contaminate Earth," he added.

NASA is hoping to launch its first piece of the Mars sample-return architecture in 2018 or 2020, Grunsfeld said. The agency has just $800 million or so to work with until then — too little for a rover, so NASA will likely launch an orbiter if it chooses the 2018 opportunity, Figueroa said.

But just when pristine little pieces of the Red Planet could make their way to Earth — and into scientists' labs — remains very much up in the air.

"As far as time frame — that's all forward work, to figure out," Grunsfeld said.

Follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall  or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook  and  Google+.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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