Exclusive: Everything we know about the Mars Sample Return Mission

NASA and the European Space Agency have a very ambitious plan to study Mars. The rovers and aircraft that have been sent so far have been excellent in studying the Red Planet, but they cannot compare to the capabilities we have in our laboratories. So the two space agencies plan to collect pieces of Mars and fly them back to Earth. The scientific value of these samples is enormous, and teams are already at work trying to understand how to keep them safe without contamination.

While the mission is still being planned in detail, there is one part that has already begun. NASA’s Perseverance collects samples in special containers that will then be brought back here to Earth. The rover is equipped with 43 sample tubes, and despite an initial sampling failure, it was very successful in collecting samples, filling one of the canisters with gas from the atmosphere and ten others with particularly interesting rocks or soil.

The next phase of the mission will be the launch of the Sample Retrieval Lander, which is scheduled to launch in 2028, for arrival in 2029. The mission plan initially saw a rover collect the samples from Perseverance, but given the outstanding success of Ingenuity , two small helicopters will be sent to act as couriers. The flying vehicles will transfer the containers to the Mars Ascension Vehicle (MAV), which will carry them into orbit, the first time this has been done.

“We’re really excited about launching a launch vehicle from another planet. That’s just a cool thing to be a part of and sort out,” Brian Hinde, Mars Sample Return program manager at Lockheed Martin, told IFLScience. “You can imagine all the things that have to happen for the first time, all the difficulties.”

There are a few things that will make it easier to launch from Mars than from our planet. The gravity is only a third of what we have here, and having an atmosphere only one percent of Earth’s volume will certainly help. But the rockets here are launched from solid concrete bases, and there are none of those on Mars. The current idea is to fly the MAV a few meters up in the air and then fire up its engine to blast off into space. It will then rendezvous with the Earth Return Orbiter, which will take them back to Earth for arrival in 2033.

Keeping it Safe Thanks to Those Who Came Before

While the Mars Return Sample mission would be a groundbreaking technical and scientific achievement, it is not the first time NASA or another agency has collected samples from elsewhere in the Solar System. Both Russia and China have sent sample collection probes to the Moon. Japan asked the Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions to collect asteroid samples, and NASA previously had a collection of solar wind particles with Genesis and cometary material with Stardust, which landed at the Utah Test and Training Area, where the Mars Sample Return mission will delivered.

There is another mission playing a role in updating the Mars Return Sample mission: OSIRIS-REx. On September 24, a capsule of material collected from asteroid Bennu will land back on Earth, once again at the Utah Test and Training Field.

The sample is sealed in a canister, protecting it from possible Earth contamination as it comes in with a semi-soft landing, using a parachute to slow down enough. Once on the ground, the capsule will be taken to a temporary clean room where it will be processed. the heat shield and rear shell will be removed and nitrogen will be used to remove oxygen and moisture from the sample container, which will then be sent to the Johnson Space Center.

“There the scientific canister will be opened. It will be opened in a specialized clean room and inside a glove box,” Sandy Freund, Lockheed Martin’s OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager, told IFLScience. “The first time the specimen will be exhibited will be in Houston.”

The OSIRIS-REx team is now working through all the procedures to ensure that the recovery of the capsule is successful and that its precious cargo can be kept safe until scientists begin to study it. Freund has previously worked on the flight and design team for each of NASA’s Genesis and Stardust sample return missions.

“Every time we bring home samples, we leverage the returns to date. I’m very much looking forward to that knowledge going into our Sample Return flow in terms of what works, how the logistics worked best, what the procedures are for recovery, how we implement security,” explained Hinde. in IFLScience. “I expect there will be a lot of crossover and learning from the work Sandy and her team are doing going forward towards Mars Sample Return.”

Not with a whimper but with a click

While we’re a decade too early for details, the containment process is expected to be pretty similar: opening the precious containers that Perseverance fills in the safest and cleanest rooms. One thing that will be different between the two missions is the design of the return capsule.

Since the mission is very complex and complications increase the chance of failure, the team has focused on simplifying the return capsule. The samples will be protected, but the current plan is to come in with a hard landing.

“In our return vehicle, we have no electronic systems, we have no control systems. Actually the plan is not to parachute but just to land. We plan to hit the desert at about 90 mph [144 kilometers per hour]Hinde explained.

As with any mission, things can change. After all, a decade is a very long time in space missions. Regardless of the details, the potential for discovery remains huge, so the will to get this sample is there. Teams just work one way.

“We’re going to learn so much because the samples that Perseverance collects, we know where they come from. And being able to put them in context will help us do things like make models to date the age of the crater surface,” Dr Abigail Fraeman, deputy project scientist for Curiosity, told IFLScience when previously discussing the documentary Good Night Oppy.

“It will give us a look at a time period in the solar system that we’ve never seen, and we’ll learn so many incredible things, even if we don’t find life.”

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