The first campaign to return humanity’s interplanetary samples is already underway.
The size of NASA’s car He launched the Perseverance Mars rover yesterday (July 30), embarking on a nearly seven-month cruise on the Red Planet.
Perseverance goes in search of signs of antiquity The life of Mars after his touch in February 2021 on the floor of Barcelona Crater Lake, which hosted a lake and a river delta a few thousand years ago. But the nuclear technology robot will also collect and store at least 20 samples of rock and earth from the red planet for its future return to Earth, so scientists can examine things in much more detail than perseverance could ever manage on your own.
Returned samples have the potential to “change our understanding of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system, “said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA̵7;s Directorate of Scientific Missions during a pre-launch conference on Tuesday (July 28th).
Live updates: NASA’s Mars Rover Perseverance Mission in real time
Month: NASA Mars Perseverance moves to the red planet (photos)
A pioneering campaign
NASA has previously conducted sample return missions. Apollo astronauts carried 842 pounds. (382 kilograms) of moon rocks between 1969 and 1972, for example, and the agency A resounding mission returned a lot of comet dust to Earth in January 2006.
In addition, from NASA OSIRIS-REx mission is preparing to take samples of the asteroid Bennu, which will make it here in September 2023 if all goes according to plan. And NASA is not alone in the sample return game. The one from Japan Hayabusa2 probe will land pieces of the asteroid Ryugu this December, and the original Hayabusa returned the grains of the stony asteroid Itokawa to Earth in 2010.
But no one has yet successfully completed an interplanetary sample return mission, and it’s not hard to understand why. This effort is incredibly complex, requiring time and cost, especially when material returning to Earth can present signatures. alien life. (Russia tried to send a sample return mission called Phobos-Grunt to the moon of Mars Phobos in 2011, but the spacecraft crashed to Earth after a launch failure.)
Think about the campaign that just launched the Perseverance launch. The nuclear power rover will stick dozens of carefully selected samples, storing the precious material in sterile tubes that will fall somewhere in the Jezero crater. (Perseverance could also be maintained in some of the samples, mission team members said.)
The next step, if all goes according to plan (provisional), will come with two launches in 2026. One launch will send the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission led by NASA to Mars and the second will sink the Earth Return Orbiter. (ERO), assisted by the European Space Agency (ESA).
The SRL includes a rocket and a small “fetch rover” provided by ESA, which will do exactly what its name suggests: find the samples in the cache and return them to the owner. The samples will then be loaded into a football-sized container aboard the rocket, which will be launched into Martian orbit.
Once up there, the rocket will unfold the sample bottle, which the ERO will remove from the vacuum and slide to Earth. As it approaches our planet, the ERO will release the boat, which will land in the Utah desert in 2031.
Samples from Mars will then be transported to a receiving facility at an as yet undetermined location, where scientists will begin taking stock of their newly delivered cosmic treasure.
A large part of the initial assessment will be to ensure that the material on Mars poses no threat to life on Earth. This has no idle concern, given that the red planet was habitable in the ancient past and that some parts of it (e.g., underwater aquifers) may still be able to support life as we know it today.
Therefore, the design of the receiving facility will be modeled in laboratories that manage and study the most dangerous contagious pathogens on Earth, said Lisa Pratt, head of planetary protection at NASA.
“It’s not that we really think there will be anything pathogenic or highly dangerous on Mars,” Pratt told the July 28 press conference. “But we will be extremely careful.”
Once again, the NASA-ESA recovery plan has not yet been finalized; dates or other details may change. But a major architectural overhaul is unlikely.
Related: The search for life on Mars (a timeline in the photo)
Better than meteorites
Scientists have been studying pieces of Mars on Earth for decades: rocks on the Red Planet that headed for Earth after being hit by space by powerful impacts. In fact, a Mars meteorite, known as Allan Hills 84001, carries what some scientists have interpreted as probable signs of life on the Red Planet. (Most other researchers consider the evidence to be inconclusive, however. I The debate continues to this day.)
Mission specimens said samples of perseverance will be scientifically superior to these previously examined red planet rocks.
For starters, Mars meteorites are hardly virgin; they have endured journeys through two planetary atmospheres and millions of miles of deep space, as well as prolonged stays on the disordered and life-like surface of our planet. However, the material selected by Perseverance, the central work of NASA’s $ 2.7 billion Mission of March 2020, will be hermetically sealed immediately after collection.
In addition, Mars meteorites are random pieces that are usually volcanic and young. The rocks in Jezero Crater, on the other hand, are billions of years old and preserve a history of a potentially habitable environment. And the rover team will be able to collect the most intriguing samples from this already promising batch.
“The most important thing about perseverance is that instead of choosing nature for ourselves, we will come to choose which rocks return to Earth, along with our careful documentation of where and why they were collected,” said Chris Herd of the University of Alberta at During the July 28 press conference, stated Canada, a Mars 2020 returned sample scientist.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the pursuit of other people’s lives. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.