NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) signed an agreement on Thursday to source Martian soil for research on Earth. The announcement was published on ESA’s official website and featured details on how the mission would be achieved.
An exciting project
“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,” said ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker.
NASA and ESA have already collaborated on ESA’s ExoMars orbiter currently circling Mars. The orbiter transmitted atmospheric data to NASA’s Curiosity rover this week.
This data may be used to determine what soil should be collected during the soil retrieval mission. “Previous Mars missions revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the Red Planet,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen.
He added that “a sample would provide a critical leap forward in our understanding of Mars’s potential to harbor life.” However, actually completing such a mission will be no easy feat as there is currently no precedent.
A never-before-done mission
Despite humanity’s many achievements in space exploration, no mission has ever completed a round trip to nor a launch from another planet. This endeavor would require at least three missions from Earth and one take off from Mars.
A first mission would see NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover collect samples while ESA’s ExoMars rover drills in search for evidence of life. A second mission would then retrieve the samples and carry them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle that would send the samples into Mars’ orbit.
Once there, a spacecraft from Earth would intercept the sample containers and return them back to Earth. When reaching earth, the samples would be placed in strict quarantine, known as planetary protection measures, to protect the planet’s biosphere from any potentially hazardous Martian substances.
The mission requires extra due diligence to ensure Mars is not contaminated with Earthly material and vice versa. Unfortunately, things did not start off too good for NASA this month.
Reports were made that the heat shield for NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover cracked during testing. Agency officials, however, said the incident would not affect the Rover's launch date.
Instead, the shield will be repaired to continue prelaunch testing and a new heat shield structure will be developed in the next year. The test had subjected the shield to forces approximately 20% greater than those present in the Martian atmosphere.