NASA Moves Forward with Campaign to Return Mars Samples to Earth
NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) are moving to the next phase in a campaign to deepen understanding of whether life ever existed on Mars and, in turn, better understand the origins of life on Earth.
NASA has approved the Mars Sample Return (MSR) multi-mission effort to advance to Phase A, preparing to bring the first pristine samples from Mars back to Earth. During this phase, the program will mature critical technologies, make critical design decisions, and assess industry partnerships.
The first endeavor of this campaign is in progress. NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launched in July and is set to land on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021. The car-size rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life. Using a coring drill at the end of its robotic arm, Perseverance has the capability to gather samples of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) and hermetically seal them in collection tubes. Perseverance can deposit these samples at designated locations on the Martian surface or store them internally.
In the next steps of the MSR campaign, NASA and ESA will provide respective components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission, with launches planned in the latter half of this decade. The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle to the surface of Mars. The rover will retrieve the samples and transport them to the lander. The Perseverance rover also provides a potential capability for the delivery of collection tubes to the lander. A robotic arm on the lander will transfer the samples into a container embedded in the nose of the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
Once sealed, the system will prepare for the first launch from another planet. In Mars orbit, the Earth Return Orbiter will rendezvous with and capture the sealed sample container and then place the samples in an additional high-reliability containment capsule for return to Earth in the early 2030s.
Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists worldwide to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars and will enable future generations to study them using technology not yet available. Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.
For more information about activities on Mars, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mars.