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NASA reveals how it intends to bring samples of Mars back to Earth

NASA has revealed more details about its ambitious plan to collect samples from Mars and return them to Earth by launching two further spacecraft in the next decade, as reported in Nature.

When the Perseverance rover launches this summer, one of its key tasks will be to collect samples of the Martian rock and soil. Its tools include a carousel of nine different drill bits for digging into different types of material, which can then be placed into a clean test tube. However, there is no way for the rover to bring the samples back to Earth. So instead, it will perform a basic analysis of the sample using its instruments, then seal up the samples carefully and leave them on the surface of the planet.

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An illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover, which is due to land on Mars in February 2021.
An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due to land on Mars in February 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next stage of getting these samples back to Earth is a complex project known as the sample return mission. The plan involves sending not one but two spacecraft back to Mars in 2026. One of these crafts would land in the same location that Perseverance is landing in, an area called the Jezero Crater. It would then send out a second rover to rendezvous with Perseverance and collect the sample tubes. Then, this second rover would return the tubes to an ascent vehicle which would lift off from the Mars surface and into orbit around the planet.

The second spacecraft is needed to rendezvous with this ascent vehicle and take the samples, before returning them to Earth. This might sound complicated, but actually it’s easier to design one spacecraft for landing and taking off from a planet’s surface, and another for traveling between planets, than it is to try and build one spacecraft which can do both.

“This is by no means a simple task,” Jim Watzin, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, said as reported by Nature. “But we have kept it as simple as possible.”

The aim is for the sample return craft to land on Mars in 2028, with the samples transferred to the other craft and landing back on Earth by 2031. The value of scientists having access to such samples could be immeasurable: “What we can learn about Mars in our own laboratories is going to be fantastic,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars exploration program.

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