Scientists have dreamed for decades of getting samples direct from Mars, and this fantasy could become reality in the next decade. NASA’s upcoming Perseverance rover will set the stage for a future sample return mission, and NASA has partnered with the European Space Agency (ESA) to get those samples back. In a recent virtual news conference, NASA’s Mars exploration team talked about the agency’s plans.
The quest to return samples to Earth is complex and includes numerous robotic explorers, and it all starts with the Perseverance rover this summer. Assuming NASA can launch on time in July, Perseverance will arrive on Mars in February 2021 and begin its mission to explore Jezero crater. Along the way, Perseverance will deposit various samples in small containers to be collected in the next stage of the mission.
Getting samples back to Earth will require a pair of launches, currently planned for 2026. NASA plans to send another Mars surface mission called the Sample Retrieval Lander. This craft will set down in Jezero crater near Perseverance and deploy an ESA-designed rover to collect the sample containers. Things get wild when the samples are secured aboard the rover. NASA and the ESA plan to make history by completing the first-ever rocket launch from the surface of Mars with the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which is essentially a small rocket on the lander.
The MAV’s only task is to get the samples off the surface of Mars and into a stable orbit. This is where that second spacecraft comes into play. The ESA orbiter will be waiting for the MAV so it can collect the sample container. Again, this will be a first — no spacecraft has ever transferred cargo in orbit of another planet. The orbiter’s final task is to launch the sample return module to Earth where scientists can recover it around 2031. Gaining access to pieces of Mars that haven’t been contaminated by exposure to Earth’s atmosphere could help scientists understand the planet’s history and current state better than any rover mission.
NASA isn’t ready to talk about the cost of this mission, but the team believes it will be several billion dollars. The MAV is the most critical component of the mission and the hardest to design. Its propulsion systems will need to remain stable for years in harsh conditions until the big moment. NASA currently plans to contract Northrop Grumman to build the rocket motors because of its experience with long-term stable rocket propellants.
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