ESA and NASA to investigate bringing Martian soil to Earth

April 27, 2018, European Space Agency
Martian soil. Credit: NASA

ESA and NASA signed a statement of intent today to explore concepts for missions to bring samples of martian soil to Earth.

Spacecraft in orbit and on Mars's surface have made many exciting discoveries, transforming our understanding of the planet and unveiling clues to the formation of our Solar System, as well as helping us understand our home planet. The next step is to bring samples to Earth for detailed analysis in sophisticated laboratories where results can be verified independently and samples can be reanalysed as laboratory techniques continue to improve.

Mars on Earth

Bringing Mars to Earth is no simple undertaking—it would require at least three missions from Earth and one never-been-done-before rocket launch from Mars.

A first , NASA's 2020 Mars Rover, is set to collect surface samples in pen-sized canisters as it explores the Red Planet. Up to 31 canisters will be filled and readied for a later pickup – geocaching gone interplanetary.

In the same period, ESA's ExoMars rover, which is also set to land on Mars in 2021, will be drilling up to two meters below the surface to search for evidence of life.

A second mission with a small fetch rover would land nearby and retrieve the samples in a martian search-and-rescue operation. This rover would bring the samples back to its lander and place them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle – a small rocket to launch the football-sized container into Mars orbit.

A third launch from Earth would provide a spacecraft sent to orbit Mars and rendezvous with the sample containers. Once the samples are safely collected and loaded into an Earth entry vehicle, the spacecraft would return to Earth, release the vehicle to land in the United States, where the samples will be retrieved and placed in quarantine for detailed analysis by a team of international scientists.

ExoMars rover 360. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Studying concepts

The statement signed today at the ILA Berlin air show by ESA's Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker, and NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, outlines the potential roles each space agency could fulfil and how they can offer mutual support.

David says: "A Mars sample return mission is a tantalising but achievable vision that lies at the intersection of many good reasons to explore space.

"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 challenges of going to Mars and back demand that they are addressed by an international and commercial partnership – the best of the best. At ESA, with our 22 member states and further cooperating partners, international cooperation is part of our DNA."

"Previous Mars missions revealed ancient streambeds and the right chemistry that could have supported microbial life on the Red Planet," said Thomas, "a sample would provide a critical leap forward in our understanding of Mars's potential to harbour life.

"I look forward to connecting and collaborating with international and commercial partners on tackling the exciting technological challenges ahead—that would allow us to bring home a sample of Mars."

The results of the mission studies will be presented at ESA's council at ministerial level in 2019 for a decision to continue developing these missions.

Infrastructure in place

ESA's ExoMars orbiter is already circling Mars to investigate its atmosphere. This week it transmitted data from NASA's Curiosity rover to Earth, proving its worth as a relay satellite as well. This collaboration demonstrates good cooperation with NASA and provides an essential communications infrastructure around the Red Planet.

Findings from the ExoMars rover mission may help decide which samples to store and bring to Earth during the Mars sample return mission.

Explore further: Next NASA Mars rover reaches key manufacturing milestone

Related Stories

Mars Sample Return: bridging robotic and human exploration

July 21, 2008

The first robotic mission to return samples to Earth from Mars took a further step toward realisation with the recent publication of a mission design report by the iMARS Working Group. The report, defines key elements of ...

NASA unveils Mars rover concept vehicle

June 13, 2017

It looks like something out of this world, but that's exactly where it would work. A futuristic Mars rover concept vehicle was recently unveiled at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex with a goal of inspiration and education ...

New animation depicts next Mars rover in action

June 27, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Although NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will not leave Earth until late this year nor land on Mars until August 2012, anyone can watch those dramatic events now in a new animation of the mission.

Recommended for you

HESS J1943+213 is an extreme blazar, study finds

June 21, 2018

An international group of astronomers have carried out multi-wavelength observations of HESS J1943+213 and found evidence supporting the hypothesis that this gamma-ray source is an extreme blazar. The finding is reported ...

'Red nuggets' are galactic gold for astronomers

June 21, 2018

About a decade ago, astronomers discovered a population of small, but massive galaxies called "red nuggets." A new study using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that black holes have squelched star formation in these ...

The Rosetta stone of active galactic nuclei deciphered

June 21, 2018

A galaxy with at least one active supermassive black hole – named OJ 287 – has caused many irritations and questions in the past. The emitted radiation of this object spans a wide range – from the radio up to the highest ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
3 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2018
Maybe bring the soil to the ISS, first?
Scolar_Visari
3 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2018
That would be very problematic as far as mission design goes. You'd need to do a hard aerocapture, multiple aerobrakes or a costly transfer-orbit ending burn, all of which would require additional propellant on top of the surprisingly high amount needed to make a successful rendezvous with the Station after getting into Earth orbit (making a direct rendezvous would be difficult and risk a rather high speed impact if things go wrong!).

A near-future, unmanned sample return vehicle is invariably going to deal with a very tight mass allowance (as historic examples have), and the increases in propellant and mission hardware needed for your proposed profile would make those mission constraints increasingly worse without making a much larger return vehicle and the entire mission a lot more expensive.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.