Whilst the discoveries made by a succession of probes and rovers have transformed our understanding of the solar system, the ability to analyse samples of martian soil in laboratories back on earth was described by one leading planetary scientist as a “mouth-watering prospect” that could shed new light on the planet's history.
According to ESA such a project would require a series of missions from Earth as well as a rocket launch from Mars, but would be able to piggy-back onto existing exploration projects.
A first mission, 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. This project reached a key milestone earlier this year (March, 2018) with NASA announcing that it had begun the assembly, test and launch operations phase of the rover’s development, and that it is on track for a July 2020 launch.
In the same period, ESA’s ExoMars rover, which is set to land on Mars in 2021, will be drilling up to two meters below the surface to search for evidence of life. Findings from the ExoMars rover mission may help decide which samples to store and bring to Earth during the Mars sample return mission. This rover, which is being designed and built by Airbus Defence and Space in the UK has also reached a key development stage, with a prototype of the vehicle about to undergo so-called “shake and bake” tests to ensure that it can withstand the rigours of the tough Martian environment. Meanwhile, ESA’s ExoMars orbiter is already circling Mars to investigate its atmosphere and has recently transmitted data from NASA’s Curiosity rover to Earth.
A second mission with a small fetch rover would land nearby and retrieve the samples, returning them to its lander and placing them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle – a small rocket to launch the football-sized container into Mars orbit.
A third launch from Earth would then 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.
Commenting on the latest announcement ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker, said: “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 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.