UK to develop facility for testing extra-terrestrial samples 

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Oxfordshire looks set to become home to Europe’s first facility for analysing and testing extra-terrestrial samples.

Funded by the UK Space Agency, the new facility will be built by specialists at the UK’s national space laboratory RAL Space, which is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL). The site is already home to world leading scientific facilities including the Diamond Light Source, and the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

extra-terrestrial samples 
Martian meteorite samples being tested at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. Credit: STFC ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

Over the coming decade at least eight missions are planning to return samples from asteroids and Mars and it’s hoped that the proposed Caution and Analysis Facility for Extra-terrestrial Samples will be ready to probe these samples when they arrive on Earth.

Emma Johnson, Principal Project Manager at RAL Space said: “This facility must be fully operational by the time Mars samples are returned to Earth in 2031. This means we have a window of opportunity to work with the planetary science community to design the best facility for curating and analysing these precious materials. This study enables us to move forward and work towards making this new facility a reality."

extra-terrestrial samples 
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are solidifying concepts for a Mars sample return mission Image: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

Sample return missions are a turning point in planetary science, enabling scientists to look in more detail at material from beyond the Earth than ever before. Dedicated facilities to receive the samples will ensure scientists can get the most out of these limited samples using technology and expertise that cannot be sent into space. Such analysis will help us to understand more about the formation and evolution of the Solar System.

The initial plan is to produce an architectural study for a new 2,400m² facility before building the facility in time to receive samples within the next ten years.