The first samples to be taken from Mars and sent to Earth will be obtained from Jezero Crater, where NASA’s Perseverance rover has been exploring the floor and ancient delta nearby. The location of an initial sample depot, called Three Forks, is flat and clear of obstacles, an ideal location for Mars Sample Return landing and pickup operations.
The Mars Sample Return campaign is made up of several missions to return the first scientifically selected samples from the surface of another planet. The first step of the campaign is already underway: since Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater in 2021, the rover has explored more than 13 kilometers and has collected 14 samples with rock cores and Martian air. The plan is to drop off 10 sample tubes at Three Forks.
“Never before has a scientifically curated collection of samples from another planet been collected and placed back on Earth,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science.
NASA and ESA
“Nasa and ESA have reviewed the proposed site and the Mars samples that will be deployed for this cache this month. When that first tube is placed on the surface, it will be a historic moment in space exploration,” adds Thomas. Both agencies approved plans to begin establish a sample repository on the surface of Mars and complete the operation in early 2023.
“Choosing the first repository on Mars makes this exploration campaign very real and tangible. Now we have a place to revisit with samples waiting for us there,” says David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA.
“That we can implement this plan early in the mission is a testament to the skill of the international team of engineers and scientists working for the Mars Sample Return campaign,” he adds.
Europe is exploring Mars with NASA. The next steps to return samples from Mars to Earth in 2033 were agreed in July after a review of the campaign by an independent board. On October 19, the space agencies approved the plan to deposit the first cache of samples on the surface.
A reconfiguration of the campaign now includes two sample recovery helicopters in lieu of an additional rover. A recent assessment of Perseverance’s reliability and life expectancy raised confidence that the rover will be able to deliver samples to NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander in 2030.
Until the first deposit is established, Perseverance is collecting two samples of every rock on Mars, one to be left on the surface as part of a sample repository and a second to be kept inside the belly of the rover to be transferred directly to the sample retrieval lander.
ESA will provide robotic assistance with the sample transfer arm. The 2.5-meter robotic arm will collect the tubes filled with precious material from Mars and transfer them to a rocket to launch them into Martian orbit. In case Perseverance is unable to get the sample tubes to ESA’s robotic arm in 2030, two small helicopters deployed by the lander will pick them up.
“The first Mars sample repository can be viewed as an important risk mitigation step for the Mars sample return campaign,” says Parker.
The European Earth Return Orbiter will then be the first interplanetary spacecraft to capture samples in orbit and make a return trip between Earth and Mars.
European scientists are part of an international team advising on which samples to choose for return and the best analysis methods to use once they land on Earth. The scientific community concluded that the igneous rocks and sediments found so far provide a compelling scientific case for the return of the samples.
Scientists are very excited about the diversity of the sample collection and the complexity of the individual samples. “Bringing these samples to our laboratories would allow scientific advances and understanding of the specific area of Jezerosays Gerhard Kminek, Principal Scientist on the Mars Sample Return for ESA.
“We could also learn more about the environmental conditions on Mars at a time when life arose on Earth, and perhaps on the Red Planet,” adds Kminek.
The Perseverance rover’s work is far from over after its first delivery of samples. Next, Perseverance will head to the top of the delta to collect many more rock and dust samples from Mars as it climbs up the delta next year.