NASA Wants to Bring a Sample of Mars Back to Earth

In this illustration, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is using its drill bit to core a rock sample on Mars. NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance rover is slated to land on Mars next February, where it and its sibling curiosity will explore the red planet and look for evidence of ancient life. However, this is only the first part of NASA’s plans for the planet. The next step, after rovers have collected data and analyzed samples on the planet, is to actually collect a sample of the Martian rock and soil and bring it back to Earth for further study.

However, it is not easy to bring stones from Mars to Earth. At least four components are required for such a mission: a lander that takes the dangerous journey through the thin Martian atmosphere and lands on the surface, a small rover that drives to the desired location and collects the sample, and an ascent vehicle to take the sample transport sample from the surface back into orbit and a return orbiter to dock with the riser to collect the sample and bring it back to Earth.

NASA is working on this complex system together with the European Space Agency in a mission called Mars Sample Return (MSR). The agencies want this mission to happen in the early 2030s, and although they have theoretically been planning the components for some time, they are now moving on to what is known as Phase A: the preliminary analysis of the mission when they decide exactly what to do is Build up and learn about the details of the mission.

“Returning Martian samples to Earth has been a goal of planetary scientists since the dawn of the space age, and successfully completing this key MSR decision point is an important next step in making that a reality,” said Thomas Zurbuchen. Associate Administrator for Science at NASA, in a statement. “MSR is a complex campaign that sums up the essence of groundbreaking space exploration – pushing the boundaries of what is capable and thereby enhancing our understanding of our place in the universe.”

The potential benefits of a Mars sample that can be studied on Earth are enormous – from understanding the planet’s history and whether it ever harbored life, to clues as to why it was so distant from Earth in its evolution , through to preparation to send people visit.

“MSR will nurture significant engineering advances for mankind and the advanced technologies required to successfully complete the first touring mission to another planet,” said Jeff Gramling, program director for Mars Sample Return at NASA headquarters. “The scientific advances offered by MSR pristine Mars samples are unprecedented, and this mission will contribute to NASA’s ultimate goal of getting humans to Mars.”

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