NASA and the European Space Agency reveal more details of the plan to return the Mars sample

A sample repository will be set up on Mars for NASA’s Perseverance rover to hide Martian gas and rock samples before the lander arrives to bring the material back to Earth sometime in the 2030s…hopefully.

Persevering, sent to the Red Planet to search for signs of ancient microbial life, has been cruising through Jezero crater and exploring its dark corners and corners since its February 2021 landing. The robotic geologist on wheels has been equipped with various instruments to analyze and drill Martian rock samples that look especially interesting. The material is collected in sample tubes and stored on board.

Perseverance covered 8.2 miles across Mars, and collected 14 rock samples and one atmospheric sample. Now it’s time to install some of these tubes on Mars.

Although the probe has not yet finished its science campaigns, officials at NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are already planning how to return Martian material to Earth for further study. They plan to set up a depot, of sorts, on Three Forks, a flat area at the base of an ancient river delta in the crater’s crater suitable for a landing craft.

At each point the perseverance sampled, the rover made sure to collect two from each sample. One set of samples will be dropped at the storage point, and the other set of samples will remain on the rover. When the probe arrives from Earth at Three Forks, it will drive the rover to its new friend, and a robotic arm will retrieve tubes from the tenacity and load them into the probe. Separately, the drones will take off from the probe and collect tubes from the warehouse. Thus, the warehouse will effectively serve as a backup source of samples in the event of an error in unloading the rover.

If all goes well, the samples will return to Earth using a small rocket.

“Choosing the first repository on Mars makes this exploration campaign very real and tangible. We now have a place to revisit with samples waiting for us there,” David Parker, director of human and robotics exploration at the European Space Agency, said in a statement on Friday.

“The first repository of Mars samples can be considered a major step in de-risking the Mars sample return campaign,” he added.

Jezero Crater is believed to be an ancient dry lake bed. Perseverance has found igneous and sedimentary rock samples during its exploration so far, as well as signs of past volcanic activity, and evidence of liquid water on Mars at some point.

NASA and the European Space Agency are collaborating for a Mars sample return program. The launch of the Earth-return vehicle is expected in 2027, while a landing retrieval sample and two helicopters will be sent to the planet’s surface a year later. These are the drones that will transport the samples from the repository to the probe. An automated sample transfer arm will load the tubes into a capsule.

The capsule will sit on the Mars Ascent Orbiter, a rocket designed to augment the container system in orbit to be retrieved by the Earth Return Orbiter, which will then return home. Mars samples are expected to reach Earth in 2033.

“Never before has a scientifically coordinated sample set from another planet been collected and placed back to Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science.

“NASA and the European Space Agency have reviewed the proposed site and Mars samples that will be published in this cache as soon as next month. When the first tube is placed on the surface, it will be a historic moment in space exploration.” ®

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