NASA and the European Space Agency have a very ambitious plan to study Mars. The rovers and landers that have been sent so far have been great at studying the Red Planet, but they can’t compare to the capabilities we have in our labs. So, the two space agencies are planning to collect bits 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 them getting contaminated.
While the mission is still being planned in detail, there is a portion that is already well underway. NASA’s Perseverance has been collecting samples in special containers that will then be brought here to Earth. The rover is equipped with 43 sample tubes, and despite an initial sampling failure, it has been 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 an arrival in 2029. The mission plan originally saw a rover going to collect the samples from Perseverance, but given the extraordinary success of Ingenuity, two small helicopters will be sent to act as couriers. The flying vehicles will carry the containers to the Mars Ascension Vehicle (MAV), which will take them to orbit, the first time something like this has been done.
“We are 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, the Mars Sample Return program manager at Lockheed Martin, told IFLScience. “You can imagine all the first-time things that have to happen, all the difficulties.”
There are a few things that will make it easier to launch from Mars than from our planet. Gravity is just one-third of what we have here, and having an atmosphere of just one percent of the volume of Earth’s will certainly help. But rockets here launch from sturdy concrete bases, and there are none of those on Mars. The current idea is to throw the MAV a few meters up in the air and then ignite its engine to fly into space. It will then rendezvous with the Earth Return Orbiter, which will take them back to Earth for an 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 that NASA or another agency has collected samples from elsewhere in the Solar System. Both Russia and China have sent sample-collecting probes to the Moon. Japan had the Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions collect samples of asteroids, and NASA has previously had a collection of solar wind particles with Genesis and cometary material with Stardust, both of which landed in the Utah Test and Training Range, where the Mars Sample Return mission will be delivered.
There is another mission that is playing a role in informing the Mars Return Sample mission: OSIRIS-REx. Next September 24, a capsule with material collected from asteroid Bennu will land back on Earth, once again at the Utah Test and Training Range.
The sample is sealed in a canister, protecting it from possible Earthly contamination as it comes in with a semi-soft landing, using a parachute to be slowed down enough. Once on the ground, the capsule will be transported to a temporary clean room where it will be processed; the heat shield and back shell will be removed, and nitrogen will be used to remove oxygen and moisture from the sample canister, which will then be sent to Johnson Space Center.
“That is where the science canister itself will be opened. It will be opened in a specialized clean room and inside a glovebox,” Sandy Freund, the OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager for Lockheed Martin, told IFLScience. “The first time the sample will be exposed will happen down at Houston.”
The OSIRIS-REx team is now working on all the procedures to make sure that the retrieval of the capsule is successful and that its precious cargo can be kept safe until scientists can begin studying it. Freund has previously worked on the flight and design team for each of NASA’s sample return missions, Genesis and Stardust.
“Every time we bring samples home, we leverage the returns to date. I very much expect that that knowledge is going to get into the flow for our Sample Return in terms of what works, how did the logistics best work out, what are the procedures for recovery, how do we put safety in place,” Hinde explained to IFLScience. “I expect there will be much crossover and learning from the work that Sandy and her team are doing that will flow forward to the Mars Sample Return.”
Not With A Whimper But With A Bang
While we are a decade too early for details, the containment procedure is expected to be fairly similar: taking the precious containers filled by Perseverance to be opened in the safest of clean rooms. One thing that is going to be different between the two missions is the return capsule design.
Given that the mission is very complicated, and complications increase the chance of failure, the team has been focusing on simplifying the return capsule. The samples will be protected, but the current plan is to come in with a hard landing.
“On our return vehicle, we don’t have avionics, we don’t have control systems. In fact, the plan is not to parachute in but to just land. We are planning to hit the desert at about 90 miles an hour [144 kilometers per hour],” Hinde explained.
Like with any other mission, things might change. A decade is a very long time in space missions, after all. Regardless of the details, the potential for discovery remains enormous, so the will to get those sample is there. Teams are just working out a way.
“We are going to learn so much because the samples that Perseverance is collecting, we know where they are from. And being able to put them in context will help us do things like make models to date the age of the surface of the crater,” Dr Abigail Fraeman, the Deputy Project Scientist for Curiosity, told IFLScience when previously discussing the Good Night Oppy documentary.
“It’s going to give us a glimpse to a period of time in the solar system that we have never seen and we are going to learn so many incredible things, even if we don’t find life.”