Mankind’s first interplanetary campaign for the return of samples is now underway.
The size of the NASA car Perseverance Mars rover launched yesterday (July 30), launching a nearly seven-month voyage to the Red Planet.
Perseverance will hunt for signs of antiquity Life on Mars after the end of February 2021 on the floor of Crater Lake, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago. But the nuclear-powered robot will also collect and hold at least 20 samples of Red Planet rock and earth for its next return to Earth, so scientists can examine things in much more detail than perseverance could ever manage. itself.
Returned specimens 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 for NASA̵7;s Directorate of Science Mission, during a prelaunch press conference Tuesday (July 28th).
Live updates: NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance mission in real time
more: NASA’s Mars Perseverance March on the Red Planet (photo)
A pioneer campaign
NASA has carried out missile return missions before. Apollo astronauts threw home 842. (382 kilograms) e the rocks of the moon between 1969 and 1972, for example, and the agency Brave mission fragments of comet dust returned to Earth in January 2006.
Moreover, those of NASA Mission OSIRIS-REx is preparing to snatch samples of the Bennu asteroid, which will make it here in September 2023 if all goes according to plan. And NASA is not alone in the sample return match. Japan Hayabusa probe2 will land pieces of the asteroid Ryugu this December, and the original Hayabusa returned grains of the asteroid Gurik Itokawa to Earth in 2010.
But no one has successfully executed an interplanetary champion return mission and it is not difficult to understand why. Such an effort is incredibly complex, time consuming, and costly, especially when the material being returned to Earth may have signatures. foreign life. (Russia tried to send a sample return mission called Phobos-Grunt to Mars Phobos in 2011, but space crashed back to Earth after a launch failure.)
Consider the campaign that the beginning of perseverance has just begun. The nuclear power rover will take several dozen carefully selected samples, storing the precious material in sterile tubes to be stored somewhere in the Jezero Crater. (Perseverance can also hold up some of the samples, mission team members said.)
The next step, if all goes according to the current (temporary) plan, comes with two releases in 2026. One launch will send the NASA-led Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission to Mars, and the second will raise the Orbiter. Return to Earth (ERO), which is supported by the European Space Agency (ESA).
SRL includes a rocket and a “rover fetch” provided by ESA, which will do exactly what its name suggests: find the stored specimens and bring them back to earth. The samples will then be loaded into a soccer-sized box on board the rocket, which will launch itself into Martian orbit.
Once there, the rocket will place the sample box, which ERO will remove from the gap and return to Earth. As it approaches our planet, ERO will issue the canon, which will land in the Utah desert in 2031.
The Mars samples 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.
Much of the initial assessment will include ensuring that Martian material poses no threat to life on Earth. This is not an idle concern, given that the Red Planet was potentially habitable in the ancient past and parts of it – underwater aquifers, for example – may still be able to support life as we know it today.
Therefore, the design of the receiving facility will be modeled on laboratories that treat and study the most dangerous infectious pathogens on Earth, said NASA Planetary Defense official Lisa Pratt.
“Not that we really think there will be anything pathogenic or very dangerous from Mars,” Pratt told a July 28 news conference. “But we will be extremely careful.”
Again, NASA-ESA’s recovery plan is not yet complete; dates or other details may vary. But a major architectural overhaul is unlikely.
Related: Searching for life on Mars (a photo timeline)
Better than meteorites
Scientists have been studying pieces of Mars here on Earth for decades – Red Planet rocks that went to Earth after being erupted in space by powerful impacts. Indeed, one such meteorite on Mars, known as Allan Hills 84001, carries what some scientists have interpreted as possible signs of life on the Red Planet. (Most other researchers consider the evidence to be non-concrete, however, and the debate continues to this day.)
Patterns of perseverance will be scientifically superior to these previously examined Red Plan rocks, mission team members said.
For starters, Mars meteorites are by no means pristine; they have endured journeys through two planetary atmospheres and millions of miles of deep space, as well as long stays on the messy, life-giving surface of our planet. But the material chosen by perseverance, NASA’s main center $ 2.7 billion Mission March 2020, will be hermetically sealed immediately after collection.
Moreover, Mars meteorites are random fragments that tend to be volcanic and new. The rocks from 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 get to select the most intriguing samples from this already promising amount.
“The great thing about perseverance is that, instead of choosing nature for us, we will choose which rocks return to Earth, along with our careful documentation of where and why they were collected,” Chris Herd of the University of Alberta in Canada, a scientist from the return samples in March 2020, said during the July 28 press conference.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.