Now that scientists know that there is water on Mars, they want to go back and look for life. Before the Phoenix lander discovered traces of water there in 2008, the last extensive look at the Red Planet had come in 1976. Now scientists want to bring Martian rock and soil samples back to Earth to analyze for fossilized traces of alien bacteria or clues that could be explained only by something that was alive.
Such a venture as now outlined would be a three-part act, cost as much as $10 billion and take several years to complete. Space policy experts think the timing is right despite the risks and hefty price tag.
The idea of bringing Mars samples to Earth for study has been floated for the past 25 years without going anywhere due to cost and engineering concerns. Many believe it's still the best way to answer whether life ever arose on Mars.
As envisioned, a pair of rovers would launch in 2018 to a spot where water once flowed. One would drill, the other would collect rocks and dirt. Years later, some cosmic choreography would be used to get the bounty back to Earth.
If everything went as planned, samples would be returned sometime in the 2020s.
A slam dunk would be finding fossilized remains. But scientists would mainly look for complex organics that make up the building blocks of life as we know it.
"There's confidence that, 'Hey, maybe we can do this. Maybe it's not all science fiction,' " said Cornell University astronomer Jim Bell.