Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA) have signed a statement of intent to study mission concepts to bring samples of Martian soil back to Earth.

Collected samples will be thoroughly analysed in advanced laboratories.

The newly signed agreement features the possible roles that could be played by ESA and Nasa, as well as areas of potential cooperation between the agencies.

ESA Human and Robotic Exploration director David Parker said: “A Mars sample return mission is a tantalising but achievable vision that lies at the intersection of many good reasons to explore space.

“There is no question that for a planetary scientist, the chance to bring pristine, carefully chosen samples of the red planet back to Earth for examination using the best facilities is a mouth-watering prospect.

“According to ESA, bringing samples from Mars to Earth will require at least three missions from Earth, as well as the first rocket to be launched from Mars.”

“Reconstructing the history of Mars and answering questions of its past are only two areas of discovery that will be dramatically advanced by such a mission.”

The newly formed partnership expects to present results of the mission studies at ESA’s council next year to decide whether to continue developing the missions.

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Nasa Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said: “Previous Mars missions revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the red planet.

“A sample would provide a critical leap forward in our understanding of Mars’s potential to harbour life.”

According to ESA, bringing samples from Mars to Earth will require at least three missions from Earth, as well as the first rocket to be launched from Mars.

One of the missions includes Nasa’s 2020 Mars Rover, which is scheduled to collect surface samples in up to 31 pen-sized canisters.

ESA is also currently developing the ExoMars rover mission, which is due to land on Mars in 2021. The mission will be designed to drill up to 2m below the planet’s surface to search for evidence of life.

A second mission to collect samples from Mars involves the small fetch rover landing to retrieve the samples in a search-and-rescue operation.

The third mission will feature a spacecraft launched from Earth to orbit Mars and collect the sample containers. The spacecraft is expected to land back in the US, where the samples will be retrieved.