NASA, ESA Aim to Bring a Piece of Mars Back to Earth

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Space agencies have sent various missions to Mars and made fascinating discoveries in the process, but getting samples back to Earth would allow for much more detailed analysis. After a false start some years ago, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have agreed to work together on a Mars sample return mission. The first phase of the mission will kick off with the NASA 2020 Mars rover, but the return mission is still in the early planning stages.

Scientists are interested to find out if life ever existed on Mars (or maybe still does). There’s only so much you can do with instruments crammed into a rover. Having samples of Martian soil on Earth would allow researchers to conduct more detailed analysis, and we could save samples for future testing as new technologies come into being.

Part of the NASA 2020 rover mission will include a tool to collect pencil-sized samples of Martian soil. The rover will store up to 31 of these small canisters inside a larger sample container, but that mission won’t include any way to head back to Earth. The ESA’s ExoMars rover will also collect samples after it lands in 2021, but it’ll drill up to 2 meters deep. Again, it’s not designed to come home. The ESA already has the ExoMars orbiter in space around Mars to scope out potential landing zones. 

After sample collection is complete, NASA and the ESA envision a second mission heading to Mars with a small retrieval robot. It would meet up with the rovers to get the sample containers and load them into a small Mars Ascent Vehicle that takes them back into orbit. The third and final part of the return process would involve a separate mission heading the Mars orbit to rendezvous with the sample container. This is the craft that would return to Earth with the Martian samples.

When those samples get back to Earth, which might not be until the 2030s, scientists will have to observe strict containment procedures. That’s to protect the samples as well as us. Contaminating the samples with Earth microorganisms could ruin the data, and contaminating Earth with (potential) Martian microorganisms could give us all space plague. Well, probably not, but better safe than sorry.

Studying the samples up close could aid in our understanding of Mars’ history and its capacity to support life. If humans are ever going to live on Mars, those are important things to know.

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