NASA gets the green light to bring Mars rocks back to Earth


This illustration shows a NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle concept that carries samples in the orbit of Mars.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

It is one thing to send a spacecraft to Mars. Another is to land on the surface, collect some pieces of the planet and then bring them back to Earth. But NASA will try to do just that.

On Tuesday, NASA announced the results of an Independent Review Board (IRB) assessment of its planned Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission that will eventually bring back some of the red planet for our scientists to study.

“Following a review of the agency’s ambitious Mars sample return plan, the council report concludes that NASA is ready for the campaign, building on decades of scientific and technical advances in Mars exploration,” NASA said in a statement Tuesday.

The IRB has issued a broad set of recommendations, such as creating offices that will help NASA and its mission partner, the European Space Agency (ESA), work together more smoothly. It also called for independent hardware and resource assessments and a new look at the budget, which is expected to exceed $ 4 billion for the campaign’s early stages.

NASA already has a key part of the larger mission in place. The Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars, with an expected arrival in February 2021. The rover is equipped with a set of sampling tubes it will use to collect rocks and soil for later recovery via MSR.

The plans call for more important components, including a “fetch” rover from ESA that will collect the sample tubes left by Perseverance and transport them to a NASA-manufactured Mars Ascent Vehicle that would launch them into orbit around Mars. An ESA Earth Return Orbiter would meet in orbit on Mars with that vehicle to bring back the samples.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. This is one of the reasons NASA initiated what it called “the first independent review of any major strategic mission from the NASA Science Mission Directorate.”

NASA and ESA hope to launch the next stages of MSR in mid to late 2020. Hopefully, we may have pristine pieces of Mars delivered to Earth in the 2030s.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for Science, said, “Ultimately, I believe this returning sample will be worth the effort and help us answer key astrobiology questions about the red planet, bringing us one step closer to our ultimate goal of send humans to Mars. ”

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