NASA and ESA agree on the next steps to return Mars samples to Earth

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This annotated NASA image shows the location of the first sample depot. This is where the Mars Rover will deposit a set of sample tubes in preparation for its return to Earth. It’s located in the area of Jezero Crater, known as Three Forks. This image was taken on August 29, 2022. The agency’s Perseverance rover will establish the first sample depot on Mars. The next step in the unprecedented campaign to return scientifically selected samples from Mars was made on October 19 with a formal agreement between NASA and its partner ESA (European Space Agency). The two agencies will proceed with the creation of a sample tube depot on Mars. The sample depot, or cache, will be at “Three Forks,” an area located near the base of an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. The cache will contain samples of carefully chosen rocks from Mars’ surface. These samples can tell the story about Jezero Crater’s evolution and history and may even have signs of ancient life. Scientists believe that cored samples of the delta’s finely-grained sedimentary rock – which were deposited in lake billions of years ago – are most likely to indicate whether microbial activity existed at a time when Mars’ climate was very different from what it is now. How to Safely Return Mars Sample Tubes to Earth: Aaron Yazzie is a Mars Sample Return Campaign worker. He explains how NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory works to ensure the safe return of Mars sample tubes containing Martian rock-core samples that were taken by NASA’s Perseverance Rover. Thomas Zurbuchen is an associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, Washington. He stated that “Never before has a scientifically-curated collection of samples taken from another planet been collected for return to Earth.” “NASA has reviewed the site proposed, and Mars samples will be deployed to this cache as early as next month. ESA and NASA have also examined the proposal. It will be a historic moment in space exploration when the first tube is placed on the surface. One part of a solid plan to ensure mission success is the cache of samples. This duplicate collection that Perseverance will keep onboard is called the “Cache of Samples.” As part of the campaign, the Perseverance Rover will be the main means for the collection of samples to be transported to the Mars rocket vehicle. The duplicate set will be stored at the Three Forks depot as a backup.  Perseverance sample tube 266: This is an image taken in a JPL cleanroom and shows one of 43 sample tubes that were carried to Mars aboard NASA’s Perseverance Rover. Laser-etched serial numbers – such as “266” here, are used to help the science team identify each tube’s contents. “Choosing Mars’ first Mars depot makes the exploration campaign more real and tangible.” David Parker, ESA director for Human and Robotic Exploration, said that now we have a place where we can revisit, and samples are waiting for us there. “The skill of the international team working on Perseverance, Mars Sample Return is evident in how quickly we were able to implement this plan. For the Mars Sample Return Campaign, the first Mars sample depot can be considered a significant de-risking step. The campaign’s first step is underway. The first step of the campaign is already in progress since Perseverance landed on Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. It has covered 8.2 miles (13.2 km) of the Martian surface and collected 14 samples from rock core during its two previous science campaigns. The first science mission saw the rover explore the crater’s surface, a former lakebed, and collect 14 rock-core samples. The investigation of sedimentary rock highlighted the second science camp. These rocks were formed from particles of different sizes that settled in a once-watery environment. One atmospheric sample was also collected by the rover, as well as three witness tubes. The material in witness tubes helps to identify terrestrial contamination that could have been present during sampling operations. “While the drop of those tubes will mark a significant milestone in our mission, it does not mean Perseverance explorations and sample collection have ended – not by any stretch,” stated Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist at Caltech Pasadena, California. “Next, we will be heading up to the top delta to perform science investigations and collect more rock cores. Mars Sample Return will have lots of great stuff.  Another important milestone was that the Mars Sample Return Program entered the Preliminary Design Phase and Technology Completion Phase (known as Phase B) on October 1. This phase focuses on technology development, engineering prototyping, and assessments of software and hardware, as well as other risk mitigation activities. Mars Sample Return Concept Illustration This illustration depicts a group of robots that would work together to transport to Earth samples from Mars. These samples were collected by NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover. NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return Campaign will revolutionize humanity’s understanding of Mars. It will bring scientifically selected Mars samples to Earth for analysis using the most advanced instruments in the world. This campaign would achieve a high-priority solar system exploration goal since the 1970s and the three previous National Academy of Sciences Planetary Decadal Surveys. The strategic partnership between NASA and ESA would mark the first return of samples from another planet and the first launch from another planet’s surface. Perseverance’s samples from an ancient river delta during its exploration of Mars are believed to be the best evidence of the origins of Mars and the possibility of life. We can better understand the history of Mars and improve our knowledge of all the rocky planets of the solar system, including Earth.

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