NASA has shared a video showing the complex series of steps required to bring the first sample of Martian rock to Earth.
The space agency’s Perseverance rover is currently drilling and caching samples from inside Mars’ Jezero Crater to find out whether microbial life ever existed on the Red Planet.
At the end of its mission, Perseverance will set those samples aside in sealed containers for another mission to be collected 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 consist of multiple stages and multiple vehicles.
Here is a brief summary of the plan:
– First, a rocket will launch a spacecraft from Earth to Mars.
– When it is close, the spacecraft will send a lander to the surface of Mars.
The lander will install a rover, which will collect sealed samples of Mars rock collected by Perseverance.
A small rocket will send the collected samples into Mars orbit, where they will be transferred to the waiting room.
The orbiter will bring Mars samples to Earth by launching them inside a capsule at the end of its journey.
In an online post about the challenging mission, NASA says the team will have to overcome several hurdles to successfully return the sample.
For example, to ensure that samples are securely sealed to prevent contamination of the material on its return journey, and to ensure that it does not contaminate the Earth’s environment, Although NASA says it “has a low risk of bringing anything alive to Earth.”
This means that engineers must seal and sterilize the sample container without damaging the critical chemical signature in the collected material. The team is currently looking at a method called brazing, which involves melting a metal alloy into a liquid that bonds the metal together.
“One of our biggest technical challenges is getting 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 temperatures they experienced on Mars. would be, which is about 86. degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius),” said Brendan Feehan, an engineer for the system, which will capture, contain, and deliver samples aboard the orbiter to Earth. “Preliminary results testing our brazing solution have confirmed that we are on the right track.”
If successful, the technique could also be used for future sample-return missions to Europa (one of the moons orbiting Jupiter) or Enceladus (one of Saturn’s moons), “where we look for fresh ocean plumes.” Samples can be collected and returned that may contain living extraterrestrial creatures, Feehan said, “so that’s what we need to detect.”
Clearly there’s still a lot of work to be done, but by 2030 a small capsule containing samples of Mars could be headed for Earth, providing scientists with many years of exciting research material.