Last summer, NASA's Perseverance Rover took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will arrive on Mars on February 18, 2021 and collectively search for evidence of past (and perhaps even present) life. A particularly exciting aspect of this mission is the Mars Sample Return (MSR), a multi-mission in which Mars samples are sent back to Earth for analysis.
This aspect of the Perseverance mission is supported by a lander and orbiter developed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). According to NASA, the MSR has recently moved to the next stage of development (phase A). If all goes well, Perseverance will have a companion in the years to come who will take its samples and put them into orbit, where they will be picked up and sent back to Earth.
The ability to collect and cache samples is what sets the Perseverance rover apart from its predecessors, including the Curiosity rover. As with its sister mission, these samples are obtained with a drill on the end of a robotic arm. The samples are hermetically sealed in a set of collection tubes that are placed in a designated location on the Martian surface or stored internally.
This is where the MRS comes into play, which consists of a Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) that reaches the surface and a Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) that picks up the tubes and places them in a sealed sample container. The container is then transported to a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which will put it into orbit where the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) picks it up.
From here, the samples will be placed in a collection / retention and return system (CCRS) and begin the homeward journey, returning to Earth sometime in the early 2030s. While ESA will provide the lander's orbiter, rover and robotic arm, NASA will provide the lander itself, the ascent vehicle and the return system on the orbiter.
Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters, stated in a recent NASA press release:
“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 goal a reality. MSR is a complex campaign that sums up the essence of groundbreaking space exploration – pushing the boundaries of what is capable, thereby enhancing our understanding of our place in the universe. "
Phase A consists of the development of critical technologies, critical design decisions and the selection of industrial partners to implement the mission concepts. In particular, NASA and ESA are tasked with providing components for the SRL and ERO missions, which are currently expected to start after 2025.
Artist's impression of what a NASA Mars ascension vehicle could look like with tubes containing rock and soil samples. Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Earlier this year, NASA set up an independent Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board to evaluate their early concepts for a multi-mission partnership with ESA. The board's report to NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) (along with NASA's response) was released in October and shows that it is ready to run the campaign.
About a month later, the MSR Standing Review Board (SRB) followed, a second body of independent experts that recommended the transition of the program to phase A. Bobby Braun is Program Manager of the MSR program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees the development of the overall effort. As he summed it up:
“Starting the formulation work in Phase A is a significant step for our team, albeit one of several that are yet to come. These reviews have strengthened our plan for the future, and this milestone signals the creation of a concrete approach for MSR, building on the exceptional capabilities of NASA centers, our ESA partners and industry. "
This is the first time samples have been brought to Earth from another planet. More importantly, the ability to analyze these samples on Earth allows for more thorough scientific results. While Curiosity and other rovers performed sample analysis on site, in-depth analysis requires instruments that are too large and complex to be sent 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, curated samples allow scientists from around the world to test new theories and models as they are developed. Take a look at the rock samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts, which decades later still provide important clues about the formation and development of the moon. The MSR campaign also requires spacecraft to land on the surface of Mars, heavier than any previously sent.
For the first time, launch and orbital rendezvous operations are also being carried out on another planet. Last but not least, this will fuel NASA's efforts to send astronauts to Mars, which is expected to happen over the next decade. Jeff Gramling, the director of the MSR program at NASA headquarters, summarized:
“MSR will promote significant technological advances for mankind and advanced technologies necessary for the successful implementation of the first touring mission to another planet. The scientific advances that MSR offers pristine Mars samples are unprecedented. This mission will contribute to NASA's ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. "
The 2020s and early 2030s will be an exciting time for NASA. In addition to the first mission to return samples from Mars, NASA will also send the “first woman and the next man” to the moon as part of the Artemis project. By the end of the decades this will lead to the creation of an orbiting space station (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!
Further reading: NASA