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NASA video reveals complexity of Mars Sample Return mission

NASA has shared a video showing the complex series of steps required to bring the first samples of Mars rock to Earth.

The space agency’s Perseverance rover is currently drilling and caching samples from inside Mars’ Jezero Crater as part of a research effort to find out if microbial life ever existed on the red planet.

Mars Sample Return Conceptual Animation

At the end of its mission, Perseverance will set aside those samples in sealed containers for another mission to collect later this decade.

As the video shows, the Mars Sample Return mission, which will be carried out by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), will involve multiple stages and multiple vehicles.

Here’s a brief summary of the plan:

  • First, a rocket will launch a spacecraft from Earth to Mars.
  • When it gets close, the spacecraft will send a lander to the martian surface.
  • The lander will set down a rover, which will collect the sealed samples of Mars rock gathered by Perseverance.
  • A small rocket will fire the gathered samples into Mars orbit, where they will be transferred to a waiting orbiter.
  • The orbiter will bring the Mars samples to Earth by launching them inside a capsule toward the end of its journey.

In an online post about the challenging mission, NASA says the team will have plenty of hurdles to overcome to successfully return the samples.

For example, it has to ensure the samples are securely sealed in order to prevent the material from becoming contaminated on its return journey, and to ensure it doesn’t contaminate Earth’s environment, although NASA says there’s a “low risk of bringing anything alive to Earth.”

It means engineers have to seal and sterilize the sample container without damaging important chemical signatures in the gathered material. The team is currently considering a method called brazing, which involves melting a metal alloy into a liquid that glues metal together.

“Among our biggest technical challenges right now is that inches away from metal that’s melting at about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (or 538 degrees Celsius) we have to keep these extraordinary Mars samples below the hottest temperature they might have experienced on Mars, which is about 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius),” said Brendan Feehan, an engineer for the system that will capture, contain, and deliver the samples to Earth aboard the orbiter. “Initial results from the testing of our brazing solution have affirmed that we’re on the right path.”

If successful, the technique could even be used for future sample-return missions to Europa (a moon orbiting Jupiter) or Enceladus (one of Saturn’s moons), “where we could collect and return fresh ocean plume samples that could contain living extraterrestrial organisms,” Feehan said, adding: “So we need to figure this out.”

There’s clearly still plenty of work to be done, but by 2030 a small capsule containing Mars samples could be hurtling toward Earth, providing scientists with many years’ worth of exciting research material.

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Trevor Mogg
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