Unspoiled Red Planet specimens will land on Earth in just over a decade, if all goes to plan.
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working on a highly anticipated ] Mars Sampling Mission which is considered the logical next step in our study of the Red Planet and its life-sustaining potential.
"We need to bring materials back [Martian] and bring them to our labs," said Brian Muirhead of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during a presentation at NASA's Future In-Space Operations (FISO) last month ,
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Scientists in laboratories around the world will be able to sample such samples alot Muirhead, who directs NASA's Mars sample recovery campaign, added that a rover on the Red Planet can understand the history of Mars in more ways than any other way.
] In these Martian rocks researchers could even find signs of life, which should return to Earth in 2031
The NASA ESA plan is not yet official, Muirhead stressed, and details are still being worked out. But here is an overview of the concept as it is currently conceived.
A rover snatching the sample
The campaign begins next July with the launch of the Mars 2020 rover the size of NASA . The six-wheeled robot was set up in February 2021 in the 50-kilometer-wide Jezero Crater, which was a river delta in antiquity.
Mars 2020 (which will soon be given a catchier name), on a student-name contest characterizes Jezero's geology, looking for signs of ancient life, demonstrating various technologies that will guide the future exploration of the Red Planet through human beings and could carry out a variety of other work, including the collection and caching of samples.
The Rover leads 43 tubes to this end, five of which are "references" that help researchers understand the environment through which the other tubes have gone, Muirhead said. So Mars 2020 can catch a maximum of 38 samples. Ideally, the rover will drop some of it in an accessible location and leave others on the body, he added.
The next big step comes in 2026 with the launch of NASA's Mission Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL). SRL will include a stationary lander, ESA's Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) and a rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which will not be more than 3 meters high, Muirhead said.
The mission will be set up near the landing place Mars 2020, and then SFR will hit the red muck. This little robot will be smaller than the size of a golf car NASA rover Spirit and Opportunity and will use the technology developed for the ESA's ExoMars rover scheduled to launch in 19459005 is the Red Planet next summer, just a week after Mars 2020.
The SFR will not carry any scientific instruments, Muirhead said. As the name implies, its sole purpose is to return the samples provided by Mars 2020 to the lander where they will be placed in the basketball-sized Orbiting Sample Container (OS). (The sample return campaign is complex and therefore more important on the acronyms than most space missions.) If Mars 2020 actually keeps some of its collected samples, this larger rover could also roll onto the lander.
"We had to design the lander so that it could pick up these two rovers and deliver tubes to us," Muirhead said.
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Launch off the Mars surface
All this will take some time. The surface mission of the SRL is expected to take about eight months, with five months scheduled for pick-up, Muirhead said. In the meantime, the MAV will sit there and wait for his moment.
"It has to survive the surface environment – mostly [low] temperature, but also dust," said Muirhead. "And then it has to launch and take off into the Martian orbit, so it's a challenging environment for rocket propulsion."
Spaceships have previously launched from the surface of the Earth's Moon – the Apollo Missions have done this multiple times – but no vehicle has ever left the much massive Mars after landing there. So the MAV will write exploration history.
The specifications of the MAV still need to be consolidated, Muirhead said. The sample return team is considering two options: a two-stage solid fuel version and a single-stage rocket with hybrid propulsion technology. A design decision is expected later this year, Muirhead said.
After the operating system has been taken on board, the MAV will launch the solar powered lander and deploy the operating system container at least 190 miles in Mars orbit (300 km) above the surface of the planet. It is torn from the void by the third major piece of this grand plan: ESA's Earth Return Orbiter (ERO).
Bringing everything home
As the SRL mission is to launch ERO in 2026. ESA has recently invited European companies to submit proposals for the construction of the spacecraft.
"The mission is becoming a reality, and we are proud to give European industry the opportunity to join the challenge," said Orson Sutherland of ESA, study manager for ERO. in a statement .
The ERO will use electric drives and multi-stage demountable modules, and will use technologies developed for Mercury's recently launched BepiColombo mission, ESA officials said.
The European orbiter will install the newly acquired OS in a sterile security system and then sterilize the joints of that system, probably using heat, Muirhead said. Such protocols ensure that no Martian material escapes entering the Earth's atmosphere and potentially contaminates our planet.
The containment system is housed in a special vehicle deployed from the ERO as the spaceship approaches Earth. The immigration vehicle will race through the atmosphere of our planet, popping into a Playa or dry seabed in Utah.
The team designed the entry-level vehicle to operate without parachutes, relying instead on completely passive technologies. According to Muirhead, this strategy is a big potential failure.
The entry-level vehicle will be exposed to impact forces of about 1,000 G when it hits the Playa dirt, and maybe 3,000 G if it is unlucky enough to hit a rock. Said Muirhead. (The gravitational acceleration due to the gravity of our planet is 1 G.)
"We are planning for both [scenarios]," he added.
Planned date of landing is 2031. Mars and Earth match Favorable for interplanetary launches only once every 26 months. So if the SRL and the ERO are not ready in 2026, the next opportunity will come in 2028 with a 2033 pattern return to Earth.
"But beyond that we really lose the opportunities to make MSR. [Mars sample return]," said Muirhead. "This is a really good opportunity and we are working very hard to make this opportunity pay off."
Waiting for approval
Again, the campaign described above is currently just a concept. Although NASA provides funding for MSR development as part of the 2020 federal budget application the project is not yet officially listed in NASA or ESA books.
So we do not know how much it would cost. Muirhead said the team considered the campaign cost-limited with a hard cap, though it's unclear what that cap will look like.
MSR will be difficult to sustain and "require several missions that are more sophisticated and advanced than any robotic missions before," ESA officials said in another statement .
However, the team believes that it is up to the challenge.
"The campaign and design studies we conducted with ESA are going very well," said Muirhead. "We are ready to continue this partnership to achieve the goals until approved by our respective funding agencies."