NASA and ESA are teaming up to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth.
The two space agencies signed a statement of intent today to investigate ways in which future missions could collect soil samples from the red planet.
But, doing so would be a challenging task.
Not only would it require at least three missions from Earth, beginning with NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover, but the final step would involve launching a rocket from the surface of Mars itself – a feat that’s never been done before.
NASA and ESA are teaming up to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth. The two space agencies signed a statement of intent today to investigate ways in which future missions could collect soil samples from the red planet
While it won’t be easy, scientists say the concept is within reach.
‘A Mars sample return mission is a tantalizing but achievable vision that lies at the intersection of many good reasons to explore space,’ said David Parker, ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration.
‘There is no question that for a planetary scientist, the chance to bring pristine, carefully chosen samples of the red planet back to Earth for examination using the best facilities is a mouth-watering prospect.
‘Reconstructing the history of Mars and answering questions of its past are only two areas of discovery that will be dramatically advanced by such a mission.
The plan will begin with NASA’s 2020 Mars rover, which will collect Martian soil in up to 31 pen-sized canisters.
ESA’s ExoMars rover, which is set to reach the red planet in 2021, will simultaneously be drilling deep into the surface to look for evidence of life.
ExoMars will drill as far down as two meters.
The second step of the mission will launch a ‘fetch rover,’ which will retrieve the samples from the other rovers.
Then, it would return to its lander and place the samples in a small rocket dubbed a Mars Ascent Vehicle.
ESA’s ExoMars rover, which is set to reach the red planet in 2021, will simultaneously be drilling deep into the surface to look for evidence of life. ExoMars will drill as far down as two meters.An artist’s impression of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is shown
WHAT IS THE EXOMARS MISSION?
The main goal of ExoMars is to find out if life has ever existed on Mars.
The spacecraft on which the Schiaparelli travelled to Mars, Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), carries a probe to study trace gases such as methane around the planet.
Scientists believe methane, a chemical that on Earth is strongly tied to life.
The second part of the ExoMars mission, delayed to 2020, will deliver a rover to Mars’ surface.
It will be the first with the ability to both move across the planet’s surface and drill into the ground to collect and analyse samples.
Schiaparelli was designed to test technologies for the rover’s landing in four years – but, it crashed into the red planet in October 2016.
This will launch the container holding the samples to Mars orbit, where it will be collected by a spacecraft – which would require its own separate launch from Earth.
After gathering the samples and loading them to an Earth entry vehicle, the craft would return to Earth with the Martian soil.
The opportunity to analyze Martian soil would provide unprecedented access to the red planet’s history and its potential to host life.
‘Previous Mars missions revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the red planet,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
‘A sample would provide a critical leap forward in our understanding of Mars’ potential to harbor life.’