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A scenario occurred to me recently where the Chinese space program decided to go all-in on Mars sample return, and their schedule was such that it would happen before the NASA/ESA mission was scheduled to return a sample in 2032 (that hopefully won't crash land and disperse into the environment).

Suppose an impulsive billionaire decided step in and step around the government bureaucracy associated with planning, approving and funding NASA missions and just go get some soil and bring it back ASAP in order to prevent China's being the first country to return a Mars sample.

Would that billionaire need explicit permission from the US government to bring martian soil samples to Earth, or could they pretty much just do this by only complying with regulations associated with launches and landings and communications?

Would it matter if the recovery was on a ship built elsewhere and driven to international waters for recovery?

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    $\begingroup$ iirc, NASA does not have the authority to globally regulate extra-planetary material, however, they may make it a condition to their cooperation. For example, NASA says "we'll help you" and provides DSN, lauchpads, etc but then they require that Martian material is handled in some specific way. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Aug 1 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ As there isn't a real answer yet I'll mention that, as I fuzzily recall, international law says that no nation can claim space resources, like a plot on the moon or Mars. But recent US law says specifically that if private interests can develop natural resources in space then they have rights to them. International law is less certain on that point, but if it comes to it, you can sort of figure how it will work out. That is, for instance, for mining and exploitation. Laws are pretty much universally more indulgent for research. $\endgroup$ – Greg Aug 1 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ What about from a planetary protection standpoint, where the planets that need protection are both Mars and Earth? If someone wanted to bring soil from Mars and land it in the US, would they require a customs inspection? Are there any regulations that say they have to get approval for their technique to keep it safely isolated from our biological environment? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 2 at 2:21

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