NASA mission to return Mars rocks to Earth given green light – ‘Pristine pieces of Mars’

The Mars Sample Return campaign will see NASA partner with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a multi-year mission to retrieve “pristine” rock samples from Mars. Since the dawn of the Space Age, NASA astronauts have brought back more than 800lb of rocks from the surface of the Moon and more recent efforts saw remote spacecraft collect surface samples from asteroids. Scientists are, however, yet to get their hands on untouched samples from our neighbouring planet, Mars.

But this could soon change, all thanks to NASA and ESA’s Mars Sample Return campaign – a multi-stage mission that could see Mars rock samples return to Earth in the 2030s.

Doing so will help scientists better understand Mars’s ancient history, revealing more clues about the planet’s potential to host life, both past and present.

The first stage of the mission began this July with the launch of the Mars Perseverance rover.

The robotic explorer, which is expected to land in Mars’ Jezero Crater in February next year, will collect and store drill samples for retrieval.

Perseverance will leave the samples in geocached locations for a second, ESA-built rover to “fetch”.

The samples will then be brought to a NASA-built Mars Ascent Vehicle to launch into orbit.

Once the samples leave the surface of Mars, they will be collected in space by an ESA Earth Return Orbiter, sending them on their way back to Earth.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “Mars Sample Return is something NASA needs to do as a leading member of the global community.

“We know there are challenges ahead, but that’s why we look closely at these architectures.

“And that’s why in the end, we achieve the big accomplishments.”

The plans were welcomed by an Independent Review Board, which determined both NASA and ESA are ready to undertake what has been dubbed the most ambitious endeavour in human history.

NASA has already shown the ability to collect a surface sample from a considerably smaller body, an asteroid, with its OSIRIS-REx mission. 

David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, said: “The independent review has given strong support to Mars Sample Return, which is great news for the campaign.

“It reinforces our shared vision to provide the world’s scientists with pristine pieces of the Red Planet to study using laboratory tools and techniques that we could never take to Mars.

“Following on from the International Space Station, Orion and the future Gateway around the Moon, we will strengthen our agencies’ partnership at the frontier of science and technology.

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“ESA will carefully study the report’s recommendations and agree with NASA how to reflect them in our work together.”

The report, which NASA published today (November 10), reads: “Mars Sample Return (MSR) is a highly complex and ambitious program of national importance.

“As noted by the MSR Independent Review Board (IRB), it is one of the most technically difficult and operationally demanding robotic space missions ever undertaken.

“The MSR IRB’s nonconsensus report highlights this complexity and importance in laying out their observations, findings, and recommendations.

“The IRB recommends that NASA proceed with this important program and their detailed recommendations will inform the decisions we make moving forward to maximize.”

The scientific consensus is Mars once resembled a young Earth, with running water and a hot and humid atmosphere.

All of this changed, however, billions of years ago, likely after the planet’s magnetic field was weekend.

Today Mars appears to be an arid and inhospitable wasteland but there is some hope alien microbes – dead or alive – could be found under the planet’s surface.

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