NASA's Ames Research Center in California has put together a concept for a project to bring rocks from Mars back to Earth with the help of Elon Musk's private spaceflight firm SpaceX.
According to NBC, the Ames Research Center's 'Red Dragon' project would have SpaceX collecting the rock samples collected by NASA's planned 2020 Mars rover and ferrying them back to Earth so they can be analyzed for possible signs of past life.
And the Red Dragon project could be launched as early as 2020, according to the research center, which developed the concept project independently without the involvement of SpaceX.
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According to the Ames Research Center's Andy Gozalez, the project is "technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist."
Over the past weekend, SpaceX released the first pictures of the inside of its 'Crew Dragon' capsule, in which human astronauts can live in for the 260 days or so that it takes to get to Mars, but it also has an unmaned Dragon cargo capsule that has flown resupply missions to the International Space Station for NASA already.
The Red Dragon would be a modified version of the crew-less Dragon cargo capsule, which would be built with a robotic arm and extra fuel tanks, along with a rocket-powered Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV).
If the project gets fully funded, Red Dragon would launch with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket next year and land near where the 2020 Mars rover is set to land (though that has yet to be determined).
It would then collect the materials collected by the rover or collect some of its own before blasting off and returning back to Earth.
Of course, the project has not been approved by NASA yet (or SpaceX, we assume), so Red Dragon may not even happen. But if it does, researchers could end up finding out if life ever existed on Mars within the next 10 years.