The first interplanetary campaign to return a sample of humanity is underway.
NASA is the size of a car Sustainability Mars rover launched yesterday (July 30), launched a nearly 7-month cruise to the Red Planet.
Perseverance will hunt for signs from antiquity Martian life after its removal in February 2021 on the floor of Crater Lake, which hosted a lake and river delta billions of years ago. But the nuclear robot will also collect and cache at least 20 samples of rock and soil on the Red Planet for future returns to Earth, so scientists can look at things in much more detail than permanence could ever control on its 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 NASA̵
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NASA has conducted sample return missions before. Apollo’s astronauts took home 842 pounds. (382 kg) from lunar rocks for example between 1969 and 1972 and the agency Stardust mission returned comet dust walls to Earth in January 2006
In addition, those of NASA OSIRIS-REx mission is preparing to drive samples of the asteroid Bennu, which will do so here in September 2023, if all goes according to plan. And NASA is not alone in the game of returning samples. Japan Hayabusa2 probe pieces of the asteroid Ryugu will land this December, and the original Hayabusa returned grains to the rocky asteroid Itokawa in 2010.
But no one has yet successfully completed an interplanetary mission to return samples, and it’s not hard to see why. Such effort is incredibly complex, time consuming, and expensive, especially when the material returned to Earth can bear the signatures of extraterrestrial life, (Russia tried to send a sample to return a sample called Phobos-Grunt to Mars Moon Phobos in 2011, but the spacecraft crashes back to Earth after a failed shot.)
Think of the campaign that Perseverance has just launched. The nuclear-powered rover will discard several dozen carefully selected samples, storing the precious material in sterile tubes that will be cached somewhere in Jeterro Crater. (Perseverance may also apply to some of the samples, mission team members said.)
The next step, if all goes according to the current (conditional) plan, comes with two launches in 2026. One launch will send a NASA-led sampling mission to Mars, and the second will bring the orbit back to Earth. (ERO), which is assisted by the European Space Agency (ESA).
SRL includes a rocket and a small one provided by the ESA “profitable rover” that will do exactly what its name suggests: find the cached samples and return them to the lander. The samples will then be loaded into a football-sized box aboard the rocket, which will be launched into Martian orbit.
Once there, the rocket will deploy the sample container, which the EPO will pull out of the void and return to Earth. As it approaches our planet, EPO will release the box, which will land in the Utah desert in 2031.
The samples from Mars will then be transported to a receiving facility at a location yet to be determined, where scientists will begin to take stock of their new space treasure.
Much of the initial assessment will include ensuring that the material on Mars does not pose a threat to life on Earth. This is not a concern, given that the Red Planet may have been inhabited in the ancient past, and parts of it – such as subterranean aquifers – may still support life as we know it today.
Therefore, the design of the receiving facility will be modeled in laboratories that process and study the most dangerous infectious pathogens on Earth, said NASA’s planetary protection officer Lisa Pratt.
“Not that we really think there will be anything pathogenic or very dangerous from Mars,” Pratt told a news conference on July 28. “But we will be extremely careful.”
Again, the NASA-ESA search plan has not yet been finalized; dates or other details are subject to change. But major architectural renovations are unlikely.
Connected: The search for life on Mars (timeline of photos)
Better than meteorites
Scientists have been studying pieces of Mars here on Earth for decades – Red Planets, rocks that make their way to Earth after being blown into space by powerful impacts. In fact, such a Martian meteorite, known as Alan Hills 84001, carries what some scientists interpret as possible signs of life on the Red Planet. (Most other researchers, however, find the evidence unconvincing and the debate continues to this day.)
The tests of perseverance will be scientifically superior to these previously studied rocks on the Red Planet, said members of the mission team.
For starters, meteorites on Mars are hardly virgin; they have endured journeys through two planetary atmospheres and millions of miles of deep space, as well as a long stay on the cluttered, living surface of our planet. But the material selected by Perseverance is a key element of NASA’s $ 2.7 billion Mars 2020 Mission, will be hermetically sealed immediately after collection.
In addition, Martian meteorites are random pieces that tend to be volcanic and young. On the other hand, the rocks of Jezero Crater are billions of years old and preserve the history of a potentially habitable environment. And the rover team will take to choose the most intriguing samples from this already promising lot.
“The great thing about perseverance is that instead of nature choosing for us, we will choose which rocks return to Earth, along with our careful documentation of where and why they were collected,” said Chris Hurd of the University of Alberta in Canada. return of a sample from Mars 2020, said during a press conference on July 28.
Mike Wall is the author of Out of There (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.