This is the latest of several articles I've done about NASA / ESA’s plan to return a sample from Mars. The samples would be geological ones, but they also could contain life indeed NASA motivate the mission by the possibility of life, especially past life but present day life can't be ruled out. This means it could lead to extraterrestrial life coming into contact with Earth's biosphere. That leads to the question - what are NASA or ESA doing to prepare the planetary protection procedures and the supporting environmental legislation for a sample return? They would not be permitted to just do this as an internal document released on the day of launch of the sample return mission as they did for Apollo - things were much laxer back then.

Life there is not impossible, with many proposed habitats on Mars, most just below the surface and invisible from orbit or even close inspection. C uriosity has discovered salty brines below the sands in equatorial brines, indirectly. They are too cold for Earth life but Mars biology might well be able to cope by using chaotropic agents such as the perchlorates which are abundant on Mars and speed up metabolic processes at low temperatures. Also biofilms could trap the water through to daytime. There are many other options there. Of course Mars could have uninhabited habitats, but this is something you don't know until you look, and Mars for instance was similar to Earth early on, so life could have evolved there and still be there. It was actually habitable for our form of life before Earth because it cooled down first in the early solar system and didn't have the sterilizing impact that created the Moon.

This article is based on the sample return studies by the National Research Council, and the European Science Foundation and a study by Margaret Race of the SETI institute of the laws that woud be triggered by a sample return and the legal process. The calculation of the timescale is my own, based on a timescale in the NRC study and an attempt to estimate the timescale for the laws Margaret Race outlined, some of which can only be done after others in a multi-step process that seems optimistic to complete in a decade.

The caching rover to collect the samples is already complete and and has a launch date for 2020. Longer term, they already have a date to return the samples - they plan to return them in 2032. They have done paper studies for the engineering for the mission to return the samples. Yet, as far as I know, nothing has been done yet even of a preliminary nature on compliance with the environmental legislation or the Mars sample return facility which would be legally required for any sample return.

Based on a study by Margaret Race of the SETI institute, this is a far far more complex legal situation than for any previous NASA mission. A sample return can impact on numerous areas of legal protection, none of which existed at the time of Apollo. These include environmental laws, and laws to protect human health, and not just for the nation that returns the samples - domestic laws of other countries would likely be involved too, as well as international treaties. Also legislators would take these laws seriously and woudn't permit shortcuts. The public would be fully involved in the discussions too.

All this complexity is due to the requirement to safely contain any conceivable extraterrestrial biology when we only have the example of Earth's biology to go on. The requirements have increased along with advances in knowledge such as the ultramicrobacteria, the ease with which capabilities can be shared via gene transfer agents, and ideas that reduce the maximum size of a theoretical living cell of non terrestrial biology. This article is based on Margaret Race's analysis of the legal situation, and on the latest sample return planetary protection studies by the European Space Foundation and National Research Council,

Nobody I've asked seems to know anything about any work by NASA or ESA on how they plan to deal with this, if they have any plans. There is so much to do, unless I'm missing something, it is far too late to complete the legal process and have a facility ready to recieve a sample by 2032. They probably should have started on this legal process some time around 2000 to have a reasonable chance of completing it in time, and at the latest, around 2010. But they probably won't start on it until the early 2020s.

As far as I can tell they are not likely to start on that until after they have launched the sample caching rover to Mars.

The ESF and NRC found that biosafety level 4 is not enough. If we don't know what is in it yet, it has to contain any conceivable astrobiology, not just known Earth microbes. The smallest Earth microbes known are the ultramicrobacteria that are just at the optical resolution limit of 200 nanometers. Theoretical RNA world cells could be 50 nanometers in diameters. Gene Transfer agents able to transfer novel capabilities to unrelated microbes are as small as 30 to 80 nm. The ESF recommended a minimum size of 0.01 microns, or about a twentieth of the optical resolution limit.

In the case where 0.01 µm can't be achieved at a reasonable cost, and in view of the almost negligible risks from GTAs, they give 0.05 µm as a maximum permitted minimum size. This size was chosen as less than half that of the smallest currently known micro-organisms - so unlikely to contain a free-living microorganism. They recommend that such an increase of the minimum size requirement requires independent review by a panel of experts. But this is still based on Earth life. Theoretical RNA world cells can be as small as 50 nm and there has been more work since then on synthetic living cells and I think the latest theoretical minimum for a cell based on unkown biochemistry able to live independently of a host would be smaller than that. At any rate biosafety level 4 is no longer considered nearly enough to protect Earth in the expert reviews of this topic.

I summarize the relevant section of their report here.

If you go by the NRC study in 2009 it's a minimum of 12 years from starting on the project before a sample receiving facility is ready to receive its first samples, or 20 years if you go by the upper estimate, and the ESF study added extra requirements that would likely make it take longer if anything. They would need to do another new study as science has moved on since then, and you need to allow for the time to complete that study as well (the European Science Foundation - study. said the situation would need to be reviewed as science advances). This is what the 2009 study said about the timescale:

It has been estimated that the planning, design, site selection, environmental reviews, approvals, construction, commissioning, and pre-testing of a proposed SRF will occur 7 to 10 years before actual operations begin. In addition, 5 to 6 years will likely be required for refinement and maturation of SRF-associated technologies for safely containing and handling samples to avoid contamination and to further develop and refine biohazard-test protocols. Many of the capabilities and technologies will either be entirely new or will be required to meet the unusual challenges of integration into an overall (end-to-end) Mars sample return program.

Timescale for establishing a sample-receiving facility

Then - the legal process also seems unlikely to be completed within 12 years and they seem unlikely to start on this until the early 2020s..

Margaret Race looked in detail at the legal processes that would have to be completed before we can return a sample from Mars to Earth, even to a purpose built receiving facility.

Before a sample return, we have to accomplish, in this order

  • Several years: Formal environment impact statement for NEPA + laws on quarantine to be enacted, involving broad public consultation. The average length of time for an EIS in the twelve months ending 30th September 2016 was 46 months (see the DOE's Lessons Learned Quarterly Report).
  • Several years: Presidential review of potential large scale effects on the environment. This has to be done after all the other domestic legislation is completed.
  • Can be done alongside the other work: International treaties to be negotiated and domestic laws of other countries

I have only mentioned a few of the main points there.

In more detail, summary of Margaret Race's findings:

She found that under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (which did not exist in the Apollo era) a formal environment impact statement is likely to be required, and public hearings during which all the issues would be aired openly. This process is likely to take up to several years to complete.

During this process, she found, the full range of worst accident scenarios, impact, and project alternatives would be played out in the public arena. Other agencies such as the Environment Protection Agency, Occupational Health and Safety Administration, etc, may also get involved in the decision making process.

The laws on quarantine will also need to be clarified as the regulations for the Apollo program were rescinded. In the Apollo era, NASA delayed announcement of its quarantine regulations until the day Apollo was launched, so bypassing the requirement for public debate - something that would be unlikely to be tolerated today.

It is also probable that the presidential directive NSC-25 will apply which requires a review of large scale alleged effects on the environment and is carried out subsequent to the other domestic reviews and through a long process, leads eventually to presidential approval of the launch.

Then apart from those domestic legal hurdles, there are numerous international regulations and treaties to be negotiated in the case of a Mars Sample Return, especially those relating to environmental protection and health. She concluded that the public of necessity has a significant role to play in the development of the policies governing Mars Sample Return

Margaret Race does not estimate a total time for all this. But we need a figure to work with here, so let's say, as a a rough estimate, that a decade would seem optimistic to complete it all.

Once the legal situation is sorted out and the design requirements of the facility are required the next steps are:

  • 7 - 10 years: building the facility
  • 2 years: operational before launch (minimum requirement, more likely 5-6 years)
  • 2 - 4 years: to collect the sample and return it
    (if we follow the Mars 2020 plan then the follow up rover has to retrace at least part of the path of Mars 2020 to retrieve the samples, in tubes that are dropped on the surface of Mars in small caches from time to time).

That's a total of 7 + 2 + 2, or 11 years minimum, and 10 + 6 + 4 = 20 years maximum. Adding a decade for the legal proceses, that's 22 to 30 years and that's assuming there are no delays, in practice there may well be objections and complications along the way.

Also, NASA would not start work on the sample receiving facility at a cost of half a billion dollars (likely to be more than that now) until it knows what it has to build. Rightly so. So the two of those have to follow one after another.

Once they get the sticker shock of the over half billion dollar facility and even more so, realize the timescale for building it and for the legal process, I don't see then returning an unsterilized sample to Earth. They will either sterilize it before return to Earth, or return it to somewhere safe that completely breaks the chain of contact with Earth. I suggest a telerobotic study in a satellite above GEO as furthest gravitationally from the Earth or Moon.

If I have missed anything here please say.

Does anyone reading this know of anything published or any discussions by NASA on these matters and how they plan to deal with it?

My best guess so far is that they just expect it to be like the Apollo mission, that they think they only have the Outer Space Treaty to deal with which has very weak protection in the backwards direction - the Apollo guidelines were basically just an internal document. It's not even clear what their legal validity was if any, and only published on the day of launch of Apollo 11 with no peer review. For the background to all this see When Biospheres Collide, A History of NASA's Planetary Protection Programs ..

If they expect to be able to do that again they will get a rude awakening in the early 2020s, when they realize that it is not likely they can return an unsterilized sample before 2040. That is optimistic, unless they are prepared to build a half billion dollar facility simultaneously with the legal process. Long before then we'll surely find out what is on Mars by in situ research which might make the whole sample return facility unnecessary or simplify the design requirements for future sample returns. It's far easier to design a facility to contain a known hazard.

I personally think it is all back to front, we need to know what is there before we know how to handle it safely, or indeed, if it is hazardous at all. The problem is they are trying to design to contain any hazard from any conceivable exobiology when we only have the one example so far, Earth biology.

Anyway if I am missing something here do say.


We have never sent any life detection to Mars since Viking. We would not see life if it was there without life detection. Send Curiosity to the Atacama desert dry core and it won't find life there because it is not designed to be able to find it. So there may be life in the sand grains wherever it travels and we would not know. Astrobiologists have been asking NASA to send life detection instruments ever since Viking. The UREY mission nearly was sent to Mars but then NASA pulled out of the collaboration with ESA and ESA's ExoMars won't have that capability - nearly did but the life marker chip was eventually descoped from it. Meanwhile the successor to Curiosity is focused on Moxie + sample collection which gives it much less mass for instruments than Curiosity had, so though it does have Raman spectroscopy it lacks the ovens of Curiosity and it depends on the samples returned to Earth for proper analysis of them. It's not likely to be able to find life on Mars in situ. Exomars is our best bet for detecting it since it can drill but it is not equipped to be able to detect it unambiguously either.

So - at most we might get some tantalizing result that suggests there may be extant life on Mars in 2020 but no way to examine it and not likely to know for sure after ExoMars.

Incidentally ExoMars with its ability to drill surely has a better chance to find extant life there than the NASA rover, e.g. in the brines Curiosity found below the sand dunes which could be habitable to life capable of surviving lower temperatures than Earth life, or even Earth life in biofilms.

If Exomars finds extant life by drilling then there would be no way for the NASA rover to drill to collect it even if it is likely to have the same life at its location. Neither would be likely to detect a few spores in the dust.

In those situations you can't and shouldn't assume that there is no life in the samples returned from Mars. Especially since the habitats for life are likely to be a few mm under the surface of rocks or beneath the sand up to several cms down where they would be invisible. Even photosynthetic life would huddle in cracks or beneath the dust for protection from UV.


The NASA rover is calibrated to look for samples similar to the Martian meteorites we already have, and to return them as top priority. That may seem sensible to a planetary geologist as in geology context is of vital importance. However, it is not so useful for astrobiologists as for geologists to have context until you know if the structures and organics inside are life. If a sample like ALH84001 or the Tissint meteorite is returned then it would just lead to another several decades of discussion over whether the structures are fossils of life or not.

That is not how to do this. The astrobiologists themselves say it is essential to search in situ first.

The sample return mission, for astrobiologists, is little more than a technology demo, at our current stage of understanding of Mars. It would be likely to return at great expense samples that will be as ambiguous for astrobiology as the ones we have already. As far as I can tell it is not designed to return dust, just samples drilled from rocks, and it is not able to drill below the surface, which astrobiologists say is essential. But most important of all, it has no life detection instruments, even though we have many miniature instruments we could send to Mars that could detect life there - but we haven't sent any life detection instruments to Mars since Viking. They plan to return samples blind, not knowing if there is anything of direct interest to astrobiology in them, just knowing there are organics.

Detecting organics is not enough. There are many inorganic sources of organics on Mars including a constant infall from comets and meteorites. Curiosity's first detection of organics was likely organics from meteorites. So, organics don't mean it's life. A 1990 paper predicted that between 2% and 27% of the Martian soil would be contributed by meteorites, of which 1% to 10% typically is organics. According to calculations, if there was no degradation of the organics, Mars should have 60 ppm of organics from organics deposited into the regolith, averaged over its entire surface to a depth of a hundred meters (see page 10 of this paper). The big puzzle really is why Mars doesn't have more organics. This is why the organics in the Mars meteorites we already have are not taken as proof that they contained life.


The planetary scientist Chris McKay, at NASA Ames, who is both an astrobiologist and a planetary geologist recommends we just scoop a bunch of Mars dirt to show what we can do and return it to Earth. Spend one day on the surface. Design the simplest lowest cost way to return a sample from Mars, no Mars 2020, no rover. In this interview he says

"The first thing is getting a mission that scoops up a bunch of loose dirt, puts it in a box and brings it back to Earth. If I was an astronaut, what I would be worried about is not the rocks. It’s the dirt. The discovery [by NASA’s Phoenix lander] of perchlorate in the dirt is cause to worry. It’s toxic, and the second cause to worry is the fact that it took us so much by surprise. There was no prediction or premonition that there would be perchlorate in the soil. The fact that it took us completely by surprise makes me wonder if there are other surprises in the soil. In fact, I would be surprised if there are no other surprises. Bringing back dirt is easy because it’s everywhere you land. You don’t need precision landing. You don’t need a rover. You land, grab some dirt and launch it back to Earth. The ground time on Mars could be one day."

"...I’ve said for many years that the sample return should be motivated by a combination of human exploration and science. The science community, I think, does itself a disservice by taking the attitude that there will be just one sample return ever in the history of the universe, so it has to be perfect. And a sample return mission that falls short of perfect shouldn’t be considered. I don’t understand where the logic is behind that. Let’s make a first sample return a quick and easy sample grab, demonstrate the key technologies. It builds enthusiasm for the idea of round-trips to Mars. It would also make getting a second sample return easier, both programmatically and technically. That argument falls on deaf ears when I try and bring it up in the community."

One of his main concerns is that there is no alignment at present between the NASA Mars strategy and astrobiology. He covers this twice in the interview - near the beginning, and towards the end (emphasis mine):

"If we’re going to search for life, let’s search for life. I’ve been saying this to the point of exhaustion in the Mars community. The geologists win hands down as they are entrenched in the Mars program. The favorite trick is to form a committee to decide what to do. The people that are put on the committee, of course, are people who are funded to study rocks. So the committee recommends that we study rocks. They’ll say these rocks will give us the context of how to search for life on Mars. Then you say, well, that’s not right. But NASA Headquarters will say they asked the science community and they told us that this is what we ought to do. It’s kind of circular. The reason the committee told you that — it’s because you put a committee together of people who study rocks. It’s almost a Catch-22. "

"...Right now, as far as I’m concerned, there is no alignment between the Mars strategy and astrobiology. What we have learned from studying Mars is that astrobiology has to go underground. You’ve got to start drilling. Curiosity has a drill and it had problems and we are now very cautious about using it. We’ve got to get back on that horse and send a bigger drill."

There's another similar proposal, that would be even lower cost, the "Sample collection to investigate Mars" mission which would dip into the Mars atmosphere during one of its global dust storms, and pick up a sample of dusty air, to return to Earth. It would use a "free return" trajectory. As soon as it leaves Earth's vicinity, it's on a trajectory to skim the Mars atmosphere and return to Earth with only minor course corrections after that. Again this is mainly a geological mission. Laurie Leshing, one of the directors of the Boldly Go institute, interviewed by, says

"Think of it as a microscopic average rock collection from Mars"

Though these rocks would be tiny, micron scale, the Stardust sample analysis has shown how much science return you can get from tiny samples. Papers continue to be published leading to new results about comets including the discovery in 2011 that some comets actually get warm enough for liquid water to form. See summary in Wikipedia of some of the Stardust science results. Incidentally, Chris McKay's proposal would also include dust and larger particles that got there from distant parts of Mars during the dust storms, so her remark would apply to his idea as well.

(Click to watch on YouTube)

This was originally proposed as a Mars Scout mission in 2002 and was one of the four semifinalists.

If we do return a sample I think we just need to do Chris McKay's "scoop a bunch of dirt" and return that, either sterilized or for telerobotic study breaking the chain of contact with Earth e.g. to a small spacecraft above GEO.

Or - they can search in situ and return a sample once you know what is there and what you need to protect against - which would simplify the whole thing hugely. That would also align with the recommendations of astrobiologists for the best way to advance their discipline. All the recent papers on the topic by astrobiologists argue strongly against a sample return at this stage, and say we should search in situ first so we know what to return (apart from Chris McKay's scoop of dirt idea)

I think a handful of dust could be worth returning astrobiologically, not just geologically, as there could be spores in the dust. If there are no viable spores then it would also help us to study the dust to see if the dust can carry viable spores around Mars which would help with design for planetary protection.

Mars 2020 is basically not a mission designed by astrobiologists. The only sample return I know of suggested by an astrobiologist is Chris McKay's "handful of dust".


I think we should do this, but return the dust to a second spacecraft above GEO, as a technology demo. Sterilize half the dust with gamma radiation and return to Earth and study. If there are signs that it has sterilized spores in it, then study it telerobotically by sending equipment to the spacecraft above GEO.

All that can be done within the outer space treaty without triggering any environment of Earth legislation and more importantly, without any risk to Earth's biosphere.

We are protected now in a way we weren't for Apollo - and this is not just pointless form filling and paperwork and an unnecessary facility that would take up two decades or more before we get to the interesting stuff.

Astrobiologists in all the studies so far are agreed we need to protect humans and Earth's environment. For more about this see my previous article under How Extraterrestrial microbes could be hazardous to humans or Earth's environment

If you think that Mars is likely to be sterile of martian life in the equatorial regions see Curiosity brines and Effects of biofilms

If you have been persuaded by the meteorites argument to think that Earth and Mars life have to be related - this has not convinced astrobiologists who continue to design instruments for Mars to search for any concievable astrobiology. For the reason it's not convincing see Why life on Mars need not be related to Earth life.


If martian life is significantly different, then the worst case could potentially be dire indeed, and something it is far from pointless and a waste of time to protect Earth against.

I will start with a simple example, to motivate this. However optimal you might think DNA is we certainly can't rule out mirror DNA. All the life processes would work just as well with DNA spiraling the opposite direction and all the other chemicals in a cell, such as amino acids, in their mirror image state too. It's also likely that life can use different sets of amino acids, different translation tables to translate RNA into protein, and the "language" for DNA is specific and rather eccentric and surely is not the only way to do it. Then, early life may well have had no proteins. Life on Mars might well incorporate some perchlorates instead of chlorides as the salts inside them since most salts on Mars are perchlorates. There are many other ways it can be radically different, e.g. based on RNA, or PNA, or TNA instead of DNA. If it is capable enough so that half the microbes in every microbiome throughout Earth is martian after it's had time to adapt after a sample return, I don't think our ecosystems would continue to function as they do now. I mean - would you still be healthy if half the microbes on your skin used mirror DNA and had perchlorates inside them, or half the microbes in your guts? How would the food chain work if half the microbes in the soil or in our oceans and lakes had mirror DNA or had unfamiliar amino acids?

Mars condition are similar enough to Earth's for this to be possible. It is oxygen rich, with its perchlorates and recent research suggests there may be oxygen in the brines, aerobes, potentially even tiny animals like sponges in some places. See Sponges on Mars? We ask Stamenković about their oxygen-rich briny seeps model

It's warm enough in summer in the tropical regions (up to 20 C on the surface) and it has evidence of past hydrothermal vents and may well have hot spots deep below the surface, so might well have heat adapted microbes. From what we know today, Mars could have microbes capable of spreading to all the same habitats as Earth life.

Then there are the possibilities of a disease of biofilms like Legionnaires’ disease invading the lungs of animals and them having no resistance to it. Antibiotics would do nothing (microbes evolve resistance by developing alternative pathways to the targeted processes and extraterrestrial life would likely not have those processes in the first place). It is not adapted to humans. Some strains of it are now adapting to our environments, spread by humans infected by it, but the same could happen with Martian life that invades the lungs of an astronaut.

The physicist Claudius Gros briefly describes the potential results of a clash of biospheres in his "Genesis project" to develop ecospheres on transiently habitable planets (see section 4.2 Biosphere compatibilities of this paper). Here, he makes an interesting additional point. Generally our biology only evolves defense mechanisms for a threat which is actually present, not just one that is a theoretical possibility that the life has never encountered.

If martian life is unrelated to Earth life, especially, then any threat it presents has so far only ever been a theoretical possibility as far as any Earth life is concerned.

He is using this argument for Earth life introduced to a foreign extraterrestrial biosphere, but you can equally apply it the other way around for martian life returned to Earth.

"Here we presume, that general evolutionary principles hold. Namely, that biological defense mechanisms evolve only when the threat is actually present and not just a theoretical possibility. Under this assumption the outlook for two clashing complex biospheres becomes quite dire."

"In the best case scenario the microbes of one of the biospheres will eat at first through the higher multicellular organism of the other biosphere. Primitive multicellular organism may however survive the onslaught through a strategy involving rapid reproduction and adaption. ... "

"In the worst case scenario more or less all multicellular organism of the planet targeted for human settlement would be eradicated. The host planet would then be reduced to a microbial slush in a pre-cambrian state, with considerably prolonged recovery times. The leftovers of the terrestrial and the indigenous biospheres may coexist in the end in terms of ‘shadow biospheres’ "

If this is all accepted, it makes sense for the enthusiasts too to find out what is on the Mars surface before landing humans there.

It could be that it is totally harmless, or indeed beneficial. Or it could be harmful. We need to know.

It is possible there would be little by way of multicellular life that would evolve and adapt fast enough except for any kept in isolation tents by humans.

That is a worst case and it could be beneficial or harmless but the legislation is not just pointless paperwork. I think in the vast universe there may well be extra terrestrials that went extinct as a result of returning a sample unwisely from another planet in their star system.

For more details:

Anyway if anyone here knows anything about what ESA / NASA plan to do about this please say in the comments.


This may seem bad news to potential colonization enthusiasts. But if we can protect Mars and it has interesting indigenous life this would be a huge incentive to send humans there, to study it from orbit. They could explore the surface via telepresence far more thoroughly and rapidly than robots on the surface.

This approach is safe, practical, seems likely to do most science return for the least cost and also is the only reasonably sure way to protect both any native Martian life and the environment of Earth. It was highlighted in the NASA Telerobotics symposium for its planetary protection credentials, and as a fast effective way to do the science.

Telerobotics Could Help Humanity Explore Space Credit NASA / GSFC. "Safely tucked inside orbiting habitat, space explorers use telepresence to operate machinery on Mars, even lobbing a sample of the Red Planet to the outpost for detailed study." - I've added the HERRO image of a tele-operated Centaur as an insert.

The astrobiologists say we need to look for life in situ first, so that we can distinguish the organics that fall on Mars from space from any indigenous abiotic organics, and the probably faint and scattered traces from indigenous past or present day life. See How do we search for life from orbit? - The amazing advances in the technology for In situ biosignature detection instruments. Geological samples could be sterilized on the surface, perhaps with a portable gamma ray source, equivalent to a few million years of surface ionizing radiation (which would still preserve some of the organics, similarly to the organics in Martian meteorites).. As for biologically interesting samples, they could be returned to separate telerobotic facilities around Mars or Earth, or back to the habitat itself if by then they know enough to be sure that it is okay for humans and Earth to enter the chain of contact.

See my Will First Mars Astronauts Stay In Orbit - Tele-operating Sterile Rovers - To Protect Earth And Mars From Colliding Biospheres

Is This Why We Haven't Found Life On Mars Yet? Value Of Actually Looking


Telerobotics lets us explore Mars much more quickly with humans in the loop. The early stages of telerobotic exploration of Mars would use an exciting and spectacular orbit if we follow the HERRO plans. Every day the Mars space station would come in close to the poles of Mars, swing around over the sunny side in the equatorial regions and then out again close to the other pole, until Mars dwindles again into a small distant planet - and not only once. It does this twice every day. This "sun synchronous" orbit always approaches Mars on its sunny side so you get to see both sides of Mars in daylight from close up, every single day.

Imagine the view! From space Mars looks quite home-like, and the telerobotics will let you experience the Martian surface more directly than you could with spacecraft. You'll be able to touch and see things on the surface without the spacesuit in your way and with enhanced vision, and adjust the colours to show a blue sky also if you like. It's like being in the ISS, but orbiting another planet.

12th April 2011: International Space Station astronaut Cady Coleman takes pictures of the Earth from inside the cupola viewing window.- I've "photoshopped" in Hubble's photograph of Mars from 2003 to give an impression of the view of an astronaut exploring Mars from orbit.

This is a video I did which simulates the orbit they would use. I use a futuristic spacecraft as that was the easiest way to do it in the program I used to make the video. Apart from that, it is the same as the orbit suggested for HERRO.

(Click to watch on YouTube)

It would be a spectacular orbit and a tremendously humanly interesting and exciting mission to explore Mars this way. The comparison study for HERRO, completed in 2013, finds that a single orbital mission for a crew of six does more science than three similar missions on the surface, for far less infrastructure and only a little over a third of the total number of launches (you don't have to land the large human rated habitats on the surface of Mars) Here is a powerpoint presentation from the HERRO team, with details of the comparison. This is their 2011 paper and this is their 2013 paper on the topic.

Then, if you have humans orbiting for Mars, then for sure, you'd also have broadband streaming of everything back to Earth from Mars. As well as being very safe, also comfortable for the crew, you'd also have wide-field 3D binocular vision, which we can all share at home back on Earth.

It's amazing what a difference this makes, I recently tried out the HT Vive 3D recreation of Apollo 11. We'd have similar 3D virtual reality experience of the Mars surface. It would actually be a much clearer vision than you'd have from the surface in spacesuits, digitally enhanced to make it easier to distinguish colours (without white balancing the Mars surface is an almost uniform reddish grayish brown to human eyes), and so that we can see bright colours even as it gets dark, and indeed, with false colour you could see ultraviolet, infrared etc as well if you want to.

Here is a hololens vision, which though it's not telepresence, I think gives a good idea of what it might be like for those operating rovers on Mars in real time from orbit, some time in the future with this vision.

(Click to watch on YouTube)

And not only that. Everything you see on the Mars surface is streamed back to you via broadband of course. This means it can also be streamed right back to Earth. We will definitely have optical broadband between our Mars missions and Earth by then. There was proposal to do this in the early 2020s with a mission that would have streamed back 100 gigabytes a day, over 4 gigabytes an hour.

By then it will surely be gigabytes a minute or faster.

This means though, that we can build up copies of the 3D landscape back on Earth as you explore it and experts on Earth can walk into the very landscape you are in on Mars, and inspect the rocks, from all angles (if you have walked around them previously so that they have seen all sides). With multigigabyte images they can also be high enough resolution for scientists to study them close up as if they were looking at them with a geologist’s hand lens, higher resolution than you can yourself unless you choose to do the same while navigating in VR from orbit.


See also my

Read online for free here: OK to Touch? Mars? Europa? Enceladus? Or a Tale of Missteps?

Or buy here Touch Mars? Europa? Enceladus? Or a Tale of Missteps -

Read online for free here: Case For Moon First:

Or buy here: Case For Moon First: -

Read online for free here: Why Humans on Mars Right Now are Bad for Science. Includes: Astronaut gardener on the Moon

Or buy here: Why Humans on Mars Right Now Are Bad for Science-

And here is my astrobiology article that I’m working on - it may have some points of interest. It is not peer reviewed - this is an early stage, where I’m sharing it for comments and reactions but hope to submit parts of it for publication at some point.

Potential Severe Effects of a Biosphere Collision and Planetary Protection Implications

This is an extract from my