NASA and ESA have a new plan to get Martian rock samples to Earth by 2033

During the course of its year and a half stay on the surface of Mars, Perseverance has been collecting rock and soil samples.

These samples are being collected with the hope that one day, in a future mission, they would be brought back to Earth. How exactly that would be accomplished has been unclear, but this week NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) detailed how it planned to accomplish this feat.

The mission here is dubbed the Mars Sample Return Program and it is nearing the completion of its conceptual design phase.

“The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan gets put under a microscope,” explains Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA’s Washington headquarters.

“There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter,” Zurbuchen adds.

The plan is simple. Well as simple as rocket science on another planet can be. Rather than using a Sample Fetch Rover, the Sample Retrieval Lander will be used. This lander will house two helicopters. These helicopters will be based on the design of Ingenuity. These helicopters will exit the lander and retrieve samples that have been dropped on the surface of Mars by Perseverance.

The helicopters will collect the samples, transfer them to ESA’s Sample Transfer Arm which is attached to the Mars Ascent Vehicle. Two vital components that this mission hinges on are the ESA Earth Return Orbiter and NASA’s Capture, Containment and Return System.

These two systems will need to work together to retrieve the samples brought to orbit by the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

As for when NASA plans to launch this mission, the Earth Return Orbiter is planned to launch in 2027, while the Sample Retrieval Lander will launch in 2028. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that NASA hopes that the samples arrive on Earth by 2033.

“Bringing Mars samples to Earth would allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars and would enable future generations to study them. Curating the samples on Earth would also allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades,” NASA wrote in a press release.

The next phase in the mission is the preliminary design phase which is expected to kick-off in October. This phase is expected to last 12 months, about the same time it will take NASA and ESA to formalise agreements regarding funding and contributions to the mission.

This is incredibly exciting news. While 2033 is over a decade away, the fact that NASA and ESA are already thinking about retrieving samples is great. We look forward to following this journey and seeing how some of the world’s brightest minds push our understanding of our solar system forward.

[Image – NASA/JPL-Caltech]


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