On September 1st, NASA’s Perseverance rover got to drilling. Using a percussive drill at the end of its 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm and a hollow coring bit, it successfully took a sample from an alien world that could be returned to Earth by future spacecraft. The coring was sealed in a titanium sample tube, and now it’s waiting to be joined by other samples.
Along with the European Space Agency, NASA is currently developing a campaign to bring Martian samples back to Earth. The mission is designed to retrieve several cores collected by Perseverance over the following several years.
The campaign, which will include various spacecraft, multiple launches, and dozens of government agencies, is currently in the concept design and technological development phase.
“The collection of these well-documented samples will eventually allow us to analyze them in the best laboratories here on Earth once they are returned,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, principal scientist for the Mars Sample Return program.
It’s much easier to bring the sample back to Earth than it is to carry the necessary equipment to Mars. Here, scientists can use various cutting-edge laboratory technologies that are way too large and complex to be carried by spacecraft. In addition, they can do investigations in the lab much faster while providing far more information on whether the rock samples show signs of ancient microbial life.
However, to get the sample on Earth requires several steps. The campaign would involve autonomously launching a rocket carrying extraterrestrial cargo from Mars’ surface. Engineers would need to verify that the rocket’s trajectory coincides with that of a spacecraft orbiting Mars in order to transfer the sample capsule to the orbiter.
Then, the orbiter would return the sample capsule to Earth, where scientists would be waiting to safely contain it before transporting it to a secure biohazard facility, which is now under development.
One of NASA’s key challenges is figuring out how to seal and sanitize the sample container without destroying crucial chemical signals inside the rock cores. Whatever method the team develops will not only decide the fate of the Martian samples, but it will also be essential to future sample-return missions.