NASA and the European Space Agency have given the green light for the next phase of planning for a mission to launch a spacecraft to Mars to retrieve samples to be collected by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory-built-and-operated Perseverance Mars rover, which is set to touch down on the Red Planet in just under two months, officials announced last week.
The Perseverance rover is scheduled to arrive at Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18 to continue exploring the planet’s surface and hunting for signs of ancient life.
As part of its mission, it will drill into the Martian ground to collect rock and dirt samples. But the rover has no way of sending the samples back to Earth, so scientists plan to have the robotic science lab safely stow them for retrieval by another spacecraft on a subsequent mission. If successful, it will result in the first Martian samples ever collected from the Red Planet.
“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,” JPL said in a written statement. “During this phase, the program will mature critical technologies and make critical design decisions as well as assess industry partnerships.”
“The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle to the surface of Mars,” the statement explained. “The rover will retrieve the samples and transport them to the lander. The Perseverance rover also provides a potential capability for 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.”
The Mars Ascent Vehicle will then attempt “the first launch from another planet,” sending the samples into orbit around Mars, according to JPL. From there, the Earth Return Orbiter will rendezvous with the sample container, secure the precious scientific treasure and send them on a course to return to Earth in the early-2030s.
The samples will be studied by scientists around the world.
NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen said the mission intends to achieve a long-time ambition.
“Returning samples of Mars to Earth has been a goal of planetary scientists since the early days of the space age, and the successful completion of this MSR key decision point is an important next step in transforming this goal into reality,” he said. “MSR is a complex campaign, and it encapsulates the very essence of pioneering space exploration — pushing the boundaries of what’s capable and, in so doing, furthering our understanding of our place in the universe.”
Preparing the mission itself will represent a significant achievement, according to Mars Sample Return Program Manager at JPL Bobby Braun.
“Beginning the formulation work of Phase A is a momentous step for our team, albeit one of several to come,” he said. “These reviews strengthened our plan forward and this milestone signals creation of a tangible approach for MSR built upon the extraordinary capabilities of the NASA centers, our ESA partners and industry.”
NASA will provide the Sample Retrieval Lander, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, and the Capture/Containment and Return System of the Earth Return Orbiter, officials said. The ESA will contribute the Earth Return Orbiter itself, the Sample Fetch Rover, and the lander’s robotic arm.
More information on Mars exploration, as well as current and planned missions, is available online at https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mars/main/index.html.