NASA engineers have begun testing several robotics systems in preparation for the return of rock and sediment samples being collected on the surface of Mars by the Mars Perseverance rover.
The first stage of the multi-mission Mars Sample Return mission was completed when NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on the surface of Mars in February 2021. So far, 4 of the rover’s 43 sample tubes have been filled with rock cores, while one other has been filled with samples of the Martian atmosphere.
Returning a sample from Mars has been a priority for the planetary science community since the 1980s, and the potential opportunity to finally realize this goal has unleashed a torrent of creativity.
Michael Meyer, Lead Scientist, NASA Mars Exploration Program
A Brief History of Mars Exploration
Named after the Roman god of war for its reddish appearance, Mars has fascinated humanity for millennia. As the Earth’s nearest neighbor outwards from the Sun, it has only 14% of the Earth’s mass. With evidence of water having once existed on Mars, it is the only other planet in the solar system which may have supported life.
The Soviet Union was the first to attempt a flyby of the red planet in 1960. However, the first successful mission was achieved on July 14, 1965, by NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft. It captured 21 pictures of the planet. Later missions (Mariners 6 and 7 in 1969) captured a few more pictures.
To date, NASA, the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization have all successfully completed missions to Mars.
The first significant exploration of Mars was completed by NASA’s Mariner 9, which landed in November 1971. It spent a year orbiting the planet and relayed over 7,000 pictures. NASA extended this exploration in 1976 with the Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions, which included orbiters and landers. The missions lasted for years and relayed extensive information about Mars.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter arrived on March 12, 2006. It has returned more data than all previous missions combined. Mars Odyssey holds the record for the longest constantly active spacecraft in orbit around a planet excluding Earth. It arrived on October 24, 2001, and has returned about 350,000 images so far.
The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), which landed on September 12, 1997, was the first to uncover signs of water. It mapped the entire surface of the planet and provided NASA with valuable information for future landings.
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers uncovered more evidence of water in 2004. In 2008, Mars Phoenix discovered ice beneath the Martian surface.
In 2012, NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on the surface of Mars. It found previously water-soaked areas, organic compounds and detected methane. Its design inspired the Perseverance rover, which landed in February 2021.
Returning Samples of Mars to Earth
Mars Sample Return is a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). It is a multi-stage mission that will retrieve samples collected by the Mars Perseverance rover over several years. Two Mars Sample Return missions are planned.
As one of the most ambitious missions ever undertaken, it will involve multiple spacecraft, multiple launches and dozens of government agencies.
The first mission will land in the vicinity of the Jezero Crater and collect the samples retrieved by Perseverance. The second mission will capture these samples in Mars orbit and relay them back to Earth in the early to mid-2030s. These samples will help answer one of the most pressing questions in science: did life exist on Mars?
On September 1, 2021 Perseverance unfolded its arm and drilled a two-inch hole into the Martian surface, and extracted a piece of rock core. As it sealed this piece of rock into a sample tube, it marked the beginning of a historic mission.
For the surface mission, the European Space Agency is developing a rover in collaboration with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, which is designing the wheels. The rover will transfer the samples to the Sample Retriever Lander, itself being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It will, in turn, use a robotic arm developed by the ESA to pack the samples into a small rocket called a Mars Ascent Vehicle. This vehicle is under development at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
The rocket will launch from the lander to deliver the sample capsules to an ESA-designed spacecraft orbiting Mars. Once inside the spacecraft, the capsules will be sealed within sterilized containers to trap any material inside. These containers will themselves be placed inside an Earth-entry capsule. The hardware for this procedure is being developed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
At 5,291 lbs (2,400 kg), the Sample Retrieval Lander will be the heaviest spacecraft of its type to land on Mars. Since it is not equipped with a jet pack, its legs will have to absorb the impact of touchdown, relying on retrorockets to slow its descent.
The last step of the journey is really important. There’s all kinds of landing conditions you have to take into account, like rocks, or really soft sand, or coming in at an angle. This is why we have to do all this testing.
Pavlina Karafillis, Test Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
This joint NASA/ESA mission will be the first to return samples from another planet and the first launch and return from the surface of another planet. It will provide scientists with an unparalleled opportunity to further their understanding of Mars and elucidate the most pressing question of all - was there ever life on Mars?
References and Further Reading
NASA. (2021) NASA Begins Testing Robotics to Bring First Samples Back From Mars. [online] Available at: https://mars.nasa.gov/news/9096/nasa-begins-testing-robotics-to-bring-first-samples-back-from-mars/
NASA. (2021) With First Martian Samples Packed, Perseverance Initiates Remarkable Sample Return Mission. [online] Available at: https://mars.nasa.gov/news/9053/with-first-martian-samples-packed-perseverance-initiates-remarkable-sample-return-mission/