Lockheed Martin will build a rocket to retrieve Mars samples to Earth
NASA has picked Lockheed Martin as the awardee for a contract to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the first-ever man-made rocket to be launched from the surface of another planet. The MAV is tasked with bringing back samples collected by NASA's Perseverance Rover from Mars back to Earth.
As humans endeavor to colonize other planets, it is important that we understand what different planets have to offer and how their positions could affect human existence. Rovers sent to these planets can dig up samples but only conduct some basic experiments, and the detailed structure of the soil can be best studied by bringing the samples to Earth for an extensive analysis. The MAV will perform a crucial task in making this possible for samples collected on Mars.
“This groundbreaking endeavor is destined to inspire the world when the first robotic round-trip mission retrieves a sample from another planet – a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
The MAV is intended to be a small and lightweight rocket that will work in Martian environments. Unlike most other rockets that are fueled just prior to launch, the MAV first needs to be sent to Mars in a packed state and make a safe landing on the Red Planet. Responsible for this part of its journey, it is NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander that will carry MAV to the Mars' surface, and land it near the Jezero Crater, where Perseverance has saved the samples, the press release said.
Once the samples are loaded onto the MAV, it will lift off from Mars, and perform the tricky task of meeting with a European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft that would be orbiting the planet. Once captured, the orbiter will return to Earth and drop the samples for analysis.
The MAV needs to be compatible with NASA's Capture, Containment, and Return System payload on the ESA spacecraft while also being small enough to fit inside the Sample Retrieval Lander, and carrying enough firepower to lift off from the Martian surface.
Adding a little pressure to the situation is the scheduled launch of the Sample Retrieval Lander as early as 2026 with a view to returning the samples to Earth in the early-2030s, a good decade from now. Not to forget, this would be the first instance where humanity has actively sourced samples from another planet in the solar system.
With many scientists still unhappy with the IAU's definition of "planet," it's possible the debate will never be resolved!