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UK mulls mission to collect Mars rocks


(CNN) -- British scientists are considering a plan to build a probe that would return with Mars rocks just as a NASA rival warmed up its engines.

The proposed spacecraft would blast off aboard a European Space Agency rocket in 2009 and return in 2011, the earliest that NASA plans to kick off a similar mission.

Planetary scientist Colin Pillinger suggested the idea while meeting recently with nearly 90 peers at the Royal Society in London.

A professor at the Open University in Britain, Pillinger is the lead scientist for Beagle 2, an ESA probe that should dig and sniff for signs of life when it touches down on Mar in late 2003.

"If Europe looks to the future of its Mars program after Beagle 2, the question is, 'Are we capable to return a sample back,'" Pillinger said Tuesday.

The answer is yes, "if you are prepared to accept a non-pinpoint landing, land with airbag technology and have a sample that is essentially a grab sample," he said.

The lander would bore into the surface, retrieve about 200 grams of rock and soil, place the material in a protected canister and blast it into low orbit. A waiting orbiter would retrieve the container and return to Earth.

The cargo would be priceless for planetary scientists, giving them the opportunity to perform many more tests than robots can on the Martian surface.

"There are loads of young guys, sitting in labs on Earth, capable of answering the questions we have about the history of Mars from return samples," Pillinger said.

The sample most likely would not come from one of numerous sites identified in satellite images of Mars that offer tantalizing suggestions of recent water activity.

However, it could possess particles from many different sources, representing a wide variety of rock types and ages, like grains of sand on a beach. Each granule could offer completely different insights into Mars' rich geologic past.

Scientists now could "look at the sample as if each grain were a rock," building on decades of research on lunar rock samples, Pillinger said.

Still in the preliminary planning stages, the proposal lacks recommended safeguards should the sample contain live strains of extraterrestrial life.

But eager planetary scientists have suggested one method among colleagues. According to Pillinger, several have lightheartedly boasted:

"If I could have my sample first, I will eat if for the rest of you."

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European Space Agency
The Royal Society
The Open University

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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