ESA and NASA signed a statement of intent today to explore concepts for missions to bring samples of Martian soil to Earth.
Spacecraft in orbit and on Mars’s surface have made much exciting research, transforming our knowledge of the planet and uncovering signs to the formation of our Solar System, and helping us understand our home planet. The upcoming action is to bring samples to Earth for comprehensive analysis in sophisticated laboratories where results can be verified individually and samples can be reanalyzed as laboratory techniques continue to improve.
Mars on Earth
Bringing Mars to Earth is no simple undertaking—it would require at least three missions from Earth and one never-been-done-before rocket launch from Mars.
Another mission with a small fetch rover would land nearby and retrieve the samples in a martian search-and-rescue operation. This rover will take the samples to its lander and put them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle – a small rocket to launch the football-sized packet into Mars orbit.
The third launch from Earth would provide a spacecraft sent to orbit Mars and rendezvous with the sample containers. As the samples are safely gathered and loaded into an Earth entry vehicle, the spacecraft would come back to Earth, release the vehicle to land in the US, where the samples will be retrieved and put into quarantine for in depth analysis by a group of researchers.
The statement signed at the ILA Berlin air show by ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker, and NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, outlines the potential roles each space agency could fulfill and how they can offer mutual support.
David says: “A Mars sample return mission is a tantalizing but achievable vision that lies at the intersection of many good reasons to explore space.
“There is not any question that for a planetary scientist, the possibility to bring pristine, wisely picked samples of the Mars back to Earth for examination using the ideal facilities is a mouth-watering prospect. Reconstructing the history of Mars and answering queries of its past are only two areas of discovery which will be significantly superior by this kind of a mission.
“The difficulties of going to Mars and back demand that they are addressed by an international and commercial collaboration – the best of the best. At ESA, with our 22 member states and further cooperating partners, international cooperation is part of our DNA .”
“Previous Mars missions revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the Red Planet,” said Thomas, “a sample would provide a critical leap forward in our understanding of Mars’s potential to harboulife.
“I look forward to connecting and collaborating with international and commercial partners on tackling the exciting technological challenges ahead—that would allow us to bring home a sample of Mars .”
The outcomes of the mission researches are going to be presented at ESA’s council at ministerial level in 2019 for a decision to continue developing these missions.
Infrastructure in place
ESA’s ExoMars orbiter is already circling Mars to examine its atmosphere. This week it transmitted data from NASA’s Curiosity rover to Earth, showing its worth as a relay satellite as well . This collaboration shows good cooperation with NASA and provides an important communications infrastructure around the Mars.
Information from the ExoMars rover mission might help decide which samples to keep and bring to Earth throughout the Mars sample return mission.