NASA and ESA Plan To Bring Martian Soil Samples to Earth


On 26 April, NASA and the European Space Agency have signed a statement of intent on finding ways of bringing soil samples from Mars to Earth for analysis. Although it sounds great, the process is very complex. The agencies will have to find a way to get a rocket on Mars, then get the soil samples, launch the rocket from the surface of Mars and then meet in space with a different spacecraft sent from Earth.

The statement of intent was done through NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen and the ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, David Parker. The document signed contains a description of how their mission will be fulfilled, each agency having a specific role.

Answering Questions About Mars’ Past

Until then, we have Curiosity rover on Mars, which analyses soil on the Red Planet’s surface, but it would be ideal to bring some samples home, for more detailed investigations. On Earth, we have labs that can study all the soil’s compounds. Parker explains their goals:

“A Mars sample return mission is a tantalizing but achievable vision that lies at the intersection of many good reasons to explore space. There is no question that for a planetary scientist, the chance to bring pristine, carefully chosen samples of the Red Planet back to Earth for examination using the best facilities is a mouth-watering prospect. Reconstructing the history of Mars and answering questions of its past are only two areas of discovery that will be dramatically advanced by such a mission.”

Three Complex Stages

The mission will be very complex, including three launches from Earth, if nothing fails from the beginning to the end of the mission. There are many details to be taken into consideration and the agencies are working together to achieve their goal.

The first stage of the mission starts with NASA’s Mars Rover in 2020, which will collect and pack the soil samples in 30 canisters the size of a pen. The canisters will remain on the surface of the planet for the second step.

A second small rover will land on Mars and retrieve the canisters to deliver them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle. The vehicle will deliver the container – that is small as a shoebox – which carries the canisters. The container will orbit Mars until the last stage of the mission is underway.

The last stage is launching a spacecraft from Earth to Mars, to scoot up the container, place it into an Earth Entry Vehicle and then go back on Earth. Once getting to Earth, the spacecraft should land in the US. The container will be retrieved, placed in quarantine and analyzed by a team of scientists all over the world.

It’s not easy, but NASA and ESA are already beginning by working on the 2020 Mars rover.


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