With first Mars samples packed, Perseverance launches remarkable sample-return mission – NASA’s Mars Exploration Program

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NASA, together with the European Space Agency, is developing a campaign to return the Martian samples to Earth.


On September 1, NASA’s Perseverance rover extended its arm, placed a drill bit on the Martian surface, and drilled about 2 inches, or 6 centimeters, to extract a rock core. The rover then sealed the rocky core in its tube. This historic event marked the first time a spacecraft has packaged a rock sample from another planet that could be returned to Earth by a future spacecraft.

Mars Sample Return is a multi-mission campaign designed to retrieve the cores that Perseverance will collect over the next few years. Currently in the design and technology development phase, the campaign is one of the most ambitious undertakings in spaceflight history, involving multiple spacecraft, multiple launches, and dozens of government agencies.

“Returning a sample from Mars has been a priority for the planetary science community since the 1980s, and the potential opportunity to finally achieve this goal has unleashed a torrent of creativity,” said Michael Meyer, chief scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program based at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Perseverance’s first hollowed-out Mars rock in sample tube: The first core sample of Martian rock is visible (center) inside a titanium sample collection tube from the Sampling and Caching System’s camera (known as CacheCam ) of NASA’s Perseverance rover. The image was taken on September 6, 2021 (the 194th sol, or Martian day, of the mission), before the system attached and sealed a metal cap to the tube. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download picture ›

The advantage of analyzing samples on Earth – rather than assigning the task to a rover on the Martian surface – is that scientists can use many kinds of advanced laboratory technologies that are too large and too complex to be sent to Mars. And they can perform analyzes much faster in the lab while providing much more information about the existence of life on Mars.

“I’ve dreamed of having samples from Mars to analyze since I was a grad student,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, lead scientist for the Mars Sample Return program, operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Collecting these well-documented samples will eventually allow us to analyze them in the best labs here on Earth once they are returned.”

Mars Sample Return would involve several firsts aimed at settling an open question: did life take root elsewhere in the solar system than on Earth? “I have worked my entire career to have the opportunity to answer this question,” said Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Glavin helps design systems to protect Martian samples from contamination throughout their journey from Mars to Earth.

Mars sample return concept animation: Collecting samples from Mars and bringing them back to Earth will be a historic endeavor that began with the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover on July 30, 2020. Perseverance collected its first rock core samples in September 2021. Credits: NASA/ESA /JPL-Caltech. Download video >

Developed in collaboration with the ESA (the European Space Agency), Mars Sample Return would require the autonomous launch of a rocket filled with precious extraterrestrial cargo from the surface of Mars. Engineers would need to ensure that the rocket’s trajectory aligns with that of a spacecraft orbiting Mars so that the sample capsule can be transferred to the orbiter. The orbiter would then return the sample capsule to Earth, where scientists would wait to safely contain it before transporting it to a secure biohazard facility, currently under development.

Before bringing Mars samples to Earth, scientists and engineers must overcome several challenges. Here is an overview:

Protect Earth from Mars

Keeping the samples chemically pristine for rigorous study on Earth while subjecting their storage container to extreme sterilization measures to ensure nothing dangerous is delivered to Earth is a task that makes Mars Sample Return truly unprecedented.

Billions of years ago, the Red Planet may have had a comfortable environment for life that thrives in warm, humid conditions. However, NASA is highly unlikely to bring back samples of living Martian organisms, based on decades of data from orbiters, landers and rovers on Mars. Instead, scientists hope to find fossilized organic matter or other signs of ancient microbial life.

Despite the low risk of bringing anything alive to Earth, great caution prompts NASA to take significant steps to ensure that Martian samples remain securely sealed throughout their journey. After collecting rock cores from Jezero Crater and placing them in tubes made primarily of titanium, one of the strongest metals in the world, Perseverance tightly seals the tubes to prevent the accidental release of even the smallest particle. The tubes are then stored in the rover’s belly until NASA decides when and where to drop them on the Martian surface.

A sample return campaign would include an ESA sample retrieval rover that would be launched from Earth later this decade to retrieve those samples collected by Perseverance. Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, design the wheels for the fetch rover. The rover would transfer samples to a lander, under development at JPL. A robotic arm on the lander would pack the samples into the tip of a rocket designed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The rocket would deliver the sample capsule to Mars orbit, where an ESA orbiter would wait to receive it. Inside the orbiter, the capsule would be prepared for delivery to Earth by a payload being developed by a team led by NASA Goddard. This preparation would include sealing the sample capsule inside a clean container to trap any Martian material inside, sterilizing the seal, and using a robotic arm being developed at Goddard to place the sealed container in an Earth entry capsule prior to return travel to Earth.

This illustration shows a concept for a set of future robots working together to bring back samples from the surface of Mars collected by NASA's Mars Perseverance rover.

Mars Sample Return Campaign Concept Art: This illustration shows a concept for a set of future robots working together to bring back samples from the surface of Mars collected by NASA. The Mars Perseverance rover. Credits: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech. Download picture ›

One of the main tasks of NASA engineers is to figure out how to seal and sterilize the sample container without erasing the important chemical signatures in the rock cores inside. Among the techniques the team is currently testing is brazing, which involves melting a metal alloy in a liquid that essentially glues the metal together. Brazing can seal the sample container at a high enough temperature to sterilize any dust that may remain in the joint.

“One of our biggest technical challenges right now is that just inches from the metal that melts at about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (or 538 degrees Celsius), we have to keep these extraordinary Mars samples below the lowest temperature. hotter than they could have experienced on Mars, which is around 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius),” said Brendan Feehan, Goddard system engineer for the system that will capture, contain and deliver the samples to Earth. aboard ESA’s orbiter “Initial test results of our soldering solution have confirmed that we are on the right track.”

Careful design by Feehan and his colleagues would allow heat to be applied only where it is needed for soldering, limiting heat flow to the samples. Additionally, engineers can insulate samples in a material that absorbs heat and then releases it very slowly, or they can install conductors that draw heat away from the samples.

Whatever technique the team develops will be essential not only for Martian samples, Glavin said, but also for future sample return missions to Europa or Enceladus, “where we could collect and return samples. fresh ocean plume that could contain living extraterrestrial organisms, so we need to understand that.

NASA’s stringent efforts to eliminate the risk of harmful contamination from Earth date back to the 1967 International Treaty on Outer Space, which called on nations to prevent contamination of celestial bodies by Earth organisms and to prevent contamination of the Earth by returned samples. To safely return a Martian sample to Earth, NASA is partnering not only with ESA, but also with at least 19 US government departments and agencies, including the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Homeland Security.

Media contacts

DC Agle/Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
818-393-9011 / 818-393-2433
[email protected] / [email protected]

Written by Lonnie Shekhtman
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.


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