Mars mission: NASA, ESA move to next phase of mission to collect sample from Red Planet’s surfaceDecember 20, 2020
NASA Mars sample collection mission: Things have been steadily moving forward for the Mars sample collection mission of NASA and European Space Agency (ESA). After last month’s independent review approval for preparedness, the two agencies have started moving to the next phase of the mission. The Mars Sample Return (MSR) effort has been approved by NASA for advancement to Phase A, which would entail preparation for bringing back the sample from the Red Planet.
What does Phase A entail?
In this phase, critical technologies for the programme would be matured and critical design decisions would be taken, apart from the assessment of industry partnerships.
Progress on the Mars mission so far
The Mars sample collection programme is a part of a wider, decade-long Mars mission in which NASA and ESA aim to study the Red Planet, including its soil and digging within, to trace any signs of life that may have existed on the planet. This, the agencies believe, would clue them into understanding better the origins of life on Earth itself. For this study, rock samples would be retrieved from our neighbouring planet and brought back to Earth.
The mission started in July this year when NASA launched the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover into space. The rover is scheduled to land on MArs in February next year, where it would be looking to find signs of microbial life that might have once existed on the Red Planet. Perseverance, a car-sized rover, is also equipped with a robotic arm that has a coring drill at its end. With the help of this drill, it can dig into the surface, after which it can collect rock and regolith samples from Mars and seal them in sampling tubes. After that, it can either store these samples internally or leave them designated spots on the surface of Mars.
Next steps after sample collection
While the rover works on gathering samples and stowing them away, NASA and ESA would be providing components for the Sample Retrieval Lander and Earth Return Orbiter missions. The agencies are hoping to launch these two missions in the second half of the decade.
The Sample Retrieval Lander would consist of a rover to fetch the sample and an ascent vehicle. The rover would fetch the samples stowed by Perseverance on the surface of Mars and take them to the lande, while Perseverance would also have the capability to deliver collection tubes to the lander if needed. Once the collection tubes would have been delivered to the lander, its robotic arm would embed them on the ascent vehicle. The system would then take off from the Martian surface once the samples have been sealed.
While orbiting Mars, the system would meet the Earth Return Orbiter where the latter would take the sealed container holding the samples, placing them in a containment capsule to bring back to Earth in the early years of the next decade.
NASA and ESA are bringing back the samples so that scientists from across the world can study them using sophisticated equipment that cannot be taken to outer space, at least as of now. Moreover, the future generations would also be able to study these samples with technologies that are not even available yet.
This mission is similar to what Apollo had done decades ago when it brought back samples from the Moon, so that scientists could study them and theorise about the Red Planet.