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NASA reveals big decision for Mars Sample Return mission

A major part of NASA’s current Mars mission is using its Perseverance rover to gather rock particles and other samples for return to Earth by a later mission.

The material will then be studied by scientists keen to learn more about the early evolution of the distant planet, with a particular focus on finding out whether it ever supported microbial life.

The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission is a complex one that requires multiple stages to successfully transport samples from one planet to another in what would be a first in the history of space exploration.

This week NASA took an important step forward in its effort to bring the samples home, awarding the contract for the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to Colorado-based Lockheed Martin.

The small, lightweight vehicle will become the first rocket to launch from another planet at the start of the multi-stage journey to transport rock, sediment, and atmospheric samples from the surface of Mars all the way to Earth.

A rocket launching from the surface of Mars.
How the Mars Ascent Vehicle might look on its launch from the Martian surface. NASA

Commenting on Lockheed Martin’s involvement, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said the agency is now nearing the end of the conceptual phase for the ambitious MSR mission, adding that the samples, once they reach Earth, will be able to be analyzed in laboratory conditions using “state-of-the-art tools too complex to transport into space.”

The MSR mission

The MSR mission is set to begin in 2026 and will begin with a rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that will deploy a Mars-bound spacecraft.

When it reaches Mars, the spacecraft will send a lander to the planet’s surface. The lander will deploy a rover to collect the samples of Mars rock gathered by Perseverance.

The lander will then return the samples to the MAV, which will fire them into Mars orbit for transfer to a waiting Earth Return Orbiter.

On a close approach in the early- to mid-2030s, the orbiter will release the samples toward Earth in the final stage of the epic journey. The samples will be protected inside a small capsule tough enough to withstand high-speed entry into Earth’s atmosphere. NASA is currently testing the durability of different capsule designs.

“This groundbreaking endeavor is destined to inspire the world when the first robotic round-trip mission retrieves a sample from another planet — a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a message on the space agency’s website.

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Trevor Mogg
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