Mars is an obvious target for exploration because it is close by in our Solar System, but there are many more reasons to explore the Red Planet. The scientific reasons for going to Mars can be summarised by the search for life, understanding the surface and the planet’s evolution, and preparing for future human exploration.
Searching for life on Mars
Understanding whether life existed elsewhere in the Universe beyond Earth is a fundamental question of humankind. Mars is an excellent place to investigate this question because it is the most similar planet to Earth in the Solar System. Evidence suggests that Mars was once full of water, warmer and had a thicker atmosphere, offering a potentially habitable environment.
Understanding the surface of Mars and its evolution
While life arose and evolved on Earth, Mars experienced serious climate change. Planetary geologists can study rocks, sediments and soils for clues to uncover the history of the surface. Scientists are interested in the history of water on Mars to understand how life could have survived. Volcanoes, craters from meteoroid impacts, signs of atmospheric or photochemical effects and geophysical processes all carry aspects of Mars’ history.
Samples of the atmosphere could reveal crucial details on its formation and evolution, and also why Mars has less atmosphere than Earth.
Mars can also help us to learn more about our home. Understanding martian geophysical processes promises to uncover details of the evolution and history of Earth and other planets in our Solar System.
To reduce the cost and risk for human exploration of Mars, robotic missions can scout ahead and help us to find potential resources and the risks of working on the planet.
Before sending astronauts, we need to understand the hazards. Inevitably, astronauts would bring uncontained martian material when they return to Earth, either on their equipment or on themselves. Understanding any biohazards in the soil and dust will help the planning and preparation of these future missions.
Going to Mars is hard and it is even harder for humans because we would need to pack everything to survive the trip to our neighbouring planet and back. Designing a Mars mission would be easier if we could use resources that are already available locally. Water is a valuable resource for human expeditions, both to consume by astronauts and for fuel. Samples gathered by robots could help to evaluate where potential resources are available for future human explorers and how to exploit them.