With First Martian Samples Packed, NASA Perseverance Rover Initiates Ambitious Sample Return Mission

Mars 2020 Rover Sample Return Tubes

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on the planet’s surface for future missions to retrieve, as seen in this illustration. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Sample Return is a multi-mission campaign designed to retrieve the cores Perseverance will collect over the next several years. Currently, in the concept design and technology development phase, the campaign is one of the most ambitious endeavors in spaceflight history, involving multiple spacecraft, multiple launches, and dozens of government agencies.

Perseverance Second Sample Borehole

The drill hole from Perseverance’s second sample-collection attempt can be seen, in this composite of two images taken on September 1, 2021, by one of the Perseverance rover’s navigation cameras. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Returning a sample from First Cored Sample of Mars Rock

The first cored sample of Mars rock is visible (at center) inside a titanium sample collection tube in these images from the Sampling and Caching System Camera (known as CacheCam) of NASA’s Perseverance rover. These images were taken on September 6, 2021 (the 194th sol, or Martian day, of the mission), prior to the system attaching and sealing a metal cap onto the tube. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars Sample Return would involve several firsts aimed at settling an open question: Has life taken root anywhere in the solar system besides Earth? “I’ve been working my whole career for the opportunity to answer this question,” said Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Glavin is helping design systems to protect the Martian samples from contamination throughout their journey from Mars to Earth.

Collecting samples from Mars and bringing them back to Earth will be a historic undertaking that started with the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover on July 30, 2020. Perseverance collected its first rock core samples in September 2021. Credit: NASA/ESA/Mars Sample Return Campaign Artist's Concept

This illustration shows a concept for a set of future robots working together to ferry back samples from the surface of Mars collected by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

The rocket would deliver the sample capsule to Martian orbit, where an ESA orbiter would be waiting to receive it. Inside the orbiter, the capsule would be prepared for delivery to Earth by a payload being developed by a team led by NASA Goddard. This preparation would include sealing the sample capsule inside a clean container to trap any Martian material inside, sterilizing the seal, and using a robotic arm being developed at Goddard to place the sealed container into an Earth-entry capsule before the return trip to Earth.

One of the primary tasks for NASA engineers is figuring out how to seal and sterilize the sample container without obliterating important chemical signatures in the rock cores inside. Among the techniques the team is currently testing is brazing, which involves melting a metal

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