NASA reveals how it will retrieve a piece of Mars

The Mars sample-return mission will be one of the most challenging interplanetary endeavours ever undertaken.

While NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is equipped with its own mobile science laboratory, has been able to conduct its own limited analysis of soil and rock samples collected during its adventures on the Red Planet, nothing can compare to the level of scrutiny such samples could be put under if scientists were to have direct access to them here on Earth.

For years, the prospect of retrieving such materials has been little more than a pipe dream, but now it looks as though a Mars sample-return mission may actually be happening.

This week NASA revealed new details of the ambitious endeavour, including the fact that making it work will require several interplanetary firsts including the first launching of a spacecraft from the surface of Mars and the first rendez-vous between two spacecraft in Martian orbit.

Stage one of the plan will be undertaken by NASA’s upcoming Perseverance rover which is due to launch in July of this year before touching down on Mars’ Jezero crater in February 2021.

Once there, it will scoop up and collect samples of soil and store them inside 30 small tubes.

Stage two will see a second rover launch in 2026 and arrive on Mars in 2028. Its job will be to meet up with Perseverance, collect the samples, then take them back to its landing vehicle which will launch them in a capsule back up into space.

For stage three, a third spacecraft will rendez-vous with the capsule and then set a course back home.

If all goes to plan it will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere with its precious cargo sometime in 2031.

“This is by no means a simple task,” said Jim Watzin, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program in Washington DC. “But we have kept it as simple as possible.”

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