Plans for a Mars Sample Return Mission Have Moved to the Next Stage

This past summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On February 18th, 2021, it will arrive on Mars and join in the search for evidence for past (and maybe even present) life. A particularly exciting aspect of this mission is the Mars Sample Return (MSR), a multi-mission effort that will send samples of Mars back to Earth for analysis.

This aspect of the Perseverance mission will be assisted by a lander and orbiter developed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). According to NASA, the MSR recently advanced to the next stage of development (Phase A). If all goes well, Perseverance will have a companion in the coming years that will take its samples and launch them to orbit, where they will be picked up and sent back to Earth.

The ability to collect and cache samples set the Perseverance rover apart from its predecessors, including the Curiosity rover. Like its sister mission, these samples will be obtained with a coring drill mounted to the end of a robotic arm. The samples will be hermetically sealed in a set of collection tubes deposited in a designated location on the Martian surface or stored internally.

This is where the MRS will come into play, which will consist of a Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) reaching the surface and a Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) picking the tubes and placing them in a sealed sample container. The container will then be transported to a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that will carry it to orbit, where the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will pick them up.

From here, the samples will be placed inside a Capture/Containment and Return System (CCRS) and begin the trip home, returning to Earth sometime in the early 2030s. Whereas the ESA will provide the orbiter, the rover, and the lander’s robotic arm, NASA will provide the lander itself, the ascent vehicle, and the return system on the orbiter.

As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“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. 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.”

Phase A will consist of developing critical technologies, critical design decisions, and the selection of industry partners to realize the mission concepts. Specifically, NASA and the ESA will be tasked with providing components for the SRL and the ERO missions, which are currently expected to launch sometime after 2025.

Artist’s impression of what a NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle, carrying tubes containing rock and soil samples, could look like. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Earlier this year, NASA established a Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board to evaluate its early concepts for a multi-mission partnership with the ESA. The board’s report to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) (along with NASA’s response) was released in October, indicating that it is ready to undertake the campaign.

This was followed about a month later by the MSR Standing Review Board (SRB), a second panel made up of independent experts, recommending that the program move into Phase A. Bobby Braun is the program manager of the MSR program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which leads the development of the overall effort. As he summed it up:

“Beginning the formulation work of Phase A is a momentous step for our team, albeit one of several to come. 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.”

This will be the first time that samples are launched to Earth from another planet. More importantly, the ability to analyze these samples on Earth will allow for more thorough scientific returns. While Curiosity and other rovers conducted sample-analysis in-situ, in-depth analyses require instruments that are too large and complex to send to another planet.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on the planet’s surface for future missions to retrieve. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In addition, having curated samples will allow scientists from all over the world to test new theories and models as they are developed. Consider the rock samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts, which are still providing vital clues about the Moon’s formation and evolution decades later. The MSR campaign will also require landing spacecraft on the Martian surface that are heavier than any previously sent.

It will also involve launch and orbital rendezvous operations around another planet for the first time. Last but not least, it will advance NASA’s efforts to begin sending astronauts to Mars, which is expected to take place sometime in the next decade. As Jeff Gramling, the director of the MSR program at NASA Headquarters, summarized:

“MSR will foster significant engineering advances for humanity and advance technologies needed to successfully realize the first round-trip mission to another planet. The scientific advances offered by pristine Martian samples through MSR are unprecedented, and this mission will contribute to NASA’s eventual goal of sending humans to Mars.”

The 2020s and early 2030s will be an exciting time for NASA. Aside from the first sample-return mission from Mars, NASA will also be sending the “first woman and next man” to the Moon as part of Project Artemis. By decades end, this will culminate in the creation of an orbiting space station (the Lunar Gateway) and the Artemis Base Camp on the lunar surface. These, in turn, will help prepare the way for crewed missions to Mars and beyond!

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