Meet the man who helps decide which samples come back from Mars

“We need to get this right because this is answering a huge question,” said the researcher.
Loukia Papadopoulos
NASA's Perseverance.jpg
NASA's Perseverance.


Did you know that Perseverance, which has been exploring Mars since 2020, can only bring back 30 samples? Each is about the size of a piece of chalk, weighing up to about 10 grams. 

But how do scientists decide which samples come back?

A University of Alberta researcher is among a group of scientists undertaking this important job. For this mission, “return sample scientist” Chris Herd, a professor in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and curator of the U of A’s Meteorite Collection, will help determine which samples could answer the most questions about Mars.

This is according to a press release by the institution published on Tuesday.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal for me to be involved in such a huge mission, where we get to explore and get information about the rocks and the geology while at the same time sampling and looking forward to bringing those samples back,” Herd said. “That’s what sets this mission apart.”

Herd added that selecting information-rich samples is key. Luckily, modern technology and innovative tools mean the limited sample materials available shouldn’t be an issue.

“There are ways we can analyze a sample that give us incredible detail about when the rock formed, how it was modified, whether there’s any organic matter that could be evidence of life," explained Herd. “There’s a host of things we can tell from tiny amounts.”

And it’s not just the samples that the scientists receive. Tools aboard Perseverance record the location of the rocks and gather information about the environment surrounding each one. 

Next steps

As a next step, the scientists will compare the samples with at least 175 Martian meteorites discovered on Earth to offer a better picture of what has happened on the planet. This is exciting as we currently have no sedimentary rocks from the Red Planet.

Now, the researchers are hoping to receive these rocks by earliest in 2033. When they do get them, they will need to house them appropriately to protect our environment from potentially harmful Martian contaminants, while also avoiding Earthly contamination of the samples.

“There’s a lot that we have to do to make sure we don’t contaminate the samples with signatures of life from Earth and misinterpret that signature as life on Mars,” Herd concluded in the statement. “We need to get this right because this is answering a huge question.”

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board