NASA, together with the European House Company, is growing a marketing campaign to return the Martian samples to Earth.
On September 1, NASA’s Perseverance rover unfurled its arm, positioned a drill bit on the Martian floor, and drilled about 2 inches, or 6 centimeters, all the way down to extract a rock core. The rover later sealed the rock core in its tube. This historic occasion marked the primary time a spacecraft packed up a rock pattern from one other planet that might be returned to Earth by future spacecraft.
Mars Sample Return is a multi-mission marketing campaign designed to retrieve the cores Perseverance will acquire over the following a number of years. Presently, within the idea design and know-how improvement section, the marketing campaign is likely one of the most formidable endeavors in spaceflight historical past, involving a number of spacecraft, a number of launches, and dozens of presidency companies.
“Returning a pattern from Mars has been a precedence for the planetary science neighborhood for the reason that Eighties, and the potential alternative to lastly understand this purpose has unleashed a torrent of creativity,” mentioned Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program primarily based at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The advantage of analyzing samples again on Earth – relatively than assigning the duty to a rover on the Martian floor – is that scientists can use many sorts of cutting-edge lab applied sciences which might be too massive and too complicated to ship to Mars. And so they can do analyses a lot sooner within the lab whereas offering way more info on whether or not life ever existed on Mars.
“I’ve dreamed of getting Mars samples to investigate since I used to be a graduate pupil,” mentioned Meenakshi Wadhwa, principal scientist for the Mars Sample Return program, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The gathering of those well-documented samples will finally permit us to investigate them in one of the best laboratories right here on Earth as soon as they’re returned.”
Mars Sample Return would contain a number of firsts aimed toward settling an open query: Has life taken root anyplace within the photo voltaic system in addition to Earth? “I’ve been working my complete profession for the chance to reply this query,” mentioned Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist from NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart in Greenbelt, Maryland. Glavin helps design methods to guard the Martian samples from contamination all through their journey from Mars to Earth.
Gathering samples from Mars and bringing them again to Earth might be a historic enterprise that began with the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover on July 30, 2020. Perseverance collected its first rock core samples in September 2021. Credit score: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech
Being developed in collaboration with ESA (the European House Company), Mars Sample Return would require autonomously launching a rocket stuffed with valuable extraterrestrial cargo from the floor of Mars. Engineers would wish to make sure that the rocket’s trajectory aligns with that of a spacecraft orbiting Mars so the pattern capsule might be transferred to the orbiter. The orbiter would then return the pattern capsule to Earth, the place scientists could be ready to securely comprise it prior to move to a safe biohazard facility, one that’s underneath improvement now.
Earlier than bringing Martian samples to Earth, scientists and engineers should overcome a number of challenges. Right here’s a have a look at one:
Holding samples chemically pristine for rigorous research on Earth whereas subjecting their storage container to excessive sterilization measures to make sure nothing hazardous is delivered to Earth is a activity that makes Mars Sample Return really unprecedented.
Billions of years in the past the Purple Planet could have had a comfy surroundings for all times that thrives in heat and moist situations. Nonetheless, it’s extremely unlikely that NASA will convey again samples with residing Martian organisms, primarily based on many years of information from orbiters, landers, and rovers at Mars. As an alternative, scientists are hoping to seek out fossilized natural matter or different indicators of historical microbial life.
Regardless of the low threat of bringing something alive to Earth, an abundance of warning is driving NASA to take important measures to make sure the Martian samples stay securely sealed all through their journey. After amassing rock cores all through Jezero Crater and inserting them inside tubes made largely of titanium, one of many world’s strongest metals, Perseverance tightly seals the tubes to stop the inadvertent launch of even the smallest particle. The tubes are then saved within the rover’s stomach till NASA decides on the time and place to drop them on the Martian floor.
A pattern return marketing campaign would come with an ESA pattern fetch rover that will launch from Earth later this decade to choose up these samples collected by Perseverance. Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Analysis Heart in Cleveland, Ohio, are designing the wheels for the fetch rover. The rover would switch samples to a lander, being developed at JPL. A robotic arm on the lander would pack the samples into the tip of a rocket that’s being designed by NASA’s Marshall House Flight Heart in Huntsville, Alabama.
The rocket would ship the pattern capsule to Martian orbit, the place an ESA orbiter could be ready to obtain it. Contained in the orbiter, the capsule could be ready for supply to Earth by a payload being developed by a staff led by NASA Goddard. This preparation would come with sealing the pattern capsule inside a clear container to lure any Martian materials inside, sterilizing the seal, and utilizing a robotic arm being developed at Goddard to position the sealed container into an Earth-entry capsule earlier than the return journey to Earth.
One of many major duties for NASA engineers is determining the best way to seal and sterilize the pattern container with out obliterating essential chemical signatures within the rock cores inside. Among the many methods the staff is at present testing is brazing, which entails melting a steel alloy right into a liquid that basically glues steel collectively. Brazing can seal the pattern container at a temperature excessive sufficient to sterilize any mud which may stay within the seam.
“Amongst our greatest technical challenges proper now’s that inches away from steel that’s melting at about 1,000 levels Fahrenheit (or 538 levels Celsius) we have now to maintain these extraordinary Mars samples beneath the most well liked temperature they could have skilled on Mars, which is about 86 levels Fahrenheit (30 levels Celsius),” mentioned Brendan Feehan, the Goddard methods engineer for the system that may seize, comprise, and ship the samples to Earth aboard ESA’s orbiter. “Preliminary outcomes from the testing of our brazing answer have affirmed that we’re on the correct path.”
Cautious design by Feehan and his colleagues would permit warmth to be utilized solely to the place it’s wanted for brazing, limiting warmth stream to the samples. Moreover, engineers might insulate the samples in a fabric that may soak up the warmth after which launch it very slowly, or they may set up conductors that direct the warmth away from the samples.
No matter method the staff develops might be vital not just for the Martian samples, Glavin mentioned, however for future sample-return missions to Europa or Enceladus, “the place we might acquire and return recent ocean plume samples that might comprise residing extraterrestrial organisms. So we have to determine this out.”
NASA’s rigorous efforts to eradicate threat of dangerous contamination of Earth date to the worldwide Outer House Treaty of 1967, which calls on nations to stop contaminating celestial our bodies with organisms from Earth, and to stop contamination of Earth by returned samples. To soundly return a Martian pattern to Earth, NASA is partnering not solely with ESA, but additionally with no less than 19 U.S. authorities departments and companies, together with the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention and the U.S. Division of Homeland Safety.