Formerly, NASA officials and the European Space Agency signed a letter of intent to explore the various ways in which Mars can collect soil samples and return them to Earth. Sounds good, but a complex project like this will not be easy, as it would involve the very first rocket launch from the surface of the Red Planet and a rendezvous in space.
The Memorandum of Understanding was agreed today in Berlin by Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Deputy Director for the Scientific Mission Directorate, and David Parker, ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration. The document describes the possible role each space agency can play in the mission and how it could contribute to the project.
We already have rovers on the surface of Mars, including Curiosity, which has the ability to perform chemical analyzes of rocks and soils. However, it would be ideal to bring the soil samples from Mars back to Earth for a closer look. In this way, scientists could conduct more detailed studies of Martian character to study their chemical and (possibly) organic compounds. The results could be verified by other laboratories and the soil could be continuously tested as the sampling techniques improved over time. NASA and ESA say that such a mission would "make a significant leap forward" in our understanding of Mars' soil chemistry and the livability prospects.
"A Mars return mission is a tantalizing, yet feasible vision that lies at the intersection of many good reasons to explore space," Parker said. "It is beyond question that for a planetary scientist, the opportunity to bring untouched, carefully selected samples of the red planet to Earth for investigation by the best facilities is a delightful prospect to reconstruct the history of Mars and ask questions of its past are just two areas that are dramatically evolving through such a mission. "
Needless to say, this will not be easy. It would be a technologically complex mission involving three different launches from Earth and several potential mistakes from start to finish. Many details still need to be ironed out, but the project will consist of three overlapping phases, some of which are already underway.
The first phase uses NASA 2020 Mars Rover. This probe collects and packages the soil samples in approximately 30 pen-sized canisters, which flop on the surface for later removal. For the second phase, a second small rover will collect the canisters and deliver them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle – a small rocket that transports a shoe-box-sized container into space. This container, with its soil samples packed in it, will orbit Mars until the third and final station of the mission. A third launch from Earth will send a spaceship to Mars, where it will meet with the container, pick it up, put it in an earth-launch vehicle, and then drive home. Once it is on Earth, the spacecraft will make an atmospheric entrance and land somewhere in the United States. The container is retrieved, quarantined and finally analyzed by an international team of scientists.
I told you, it will not be easy. It is expected that NASA and ESA will present more details next year. Then it is decided if, how and when it will continue.
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Fortunately, part of the infrastructure needed for this mission already exists. As we said earlier, the NASA 2020 Mars Rover is definitely underway, but there are also ESA ExoMars orbiter to consider. This spaceship has just arrived on Mars and it finally starts to send back images. In addition to measuring the atmospheric composition of Mars, the ExoMars satellite will serve as a communication relay station for rovers on the ground. In addition, ESA's ExoMars rover, which is expected to dig deep into the Martian surface in 2021, could help scientists decide which samples should be stored and returned to Earth.