In what is sure to sound something straight out of a sci-fi flick, NASA has revealed some really interesting details about its plan to collect samples of the Martian surface and bring them back to Earth. And trust us when we say this, that the described set of pioneering actions will assure that this interplanetary heist will be nothing short of a sci-fi film.
Involving multiple spacecrafts, rovers, touchdowns and the first ever rocket launch from a planet other than ours, the soaringly ambitious international endeavour will bring Martian rocks to scientists in just over a decade.
If things go as planned, the first step of this hugely ambitious yet realistic plan comes in July, when Perseverance rover will be launched. In February next year, the rover will land on the Jezero crater which is home to river delta that could hold traces of ancient Martian life. Perseverance will then drive around for many kilometres collecting samples of the Martian surface in 30 small geological sampling tubes. The rover will be enabled with a drill and soil scoop.
For long, it hadn’t been clear how these tubes would find their way back to the earth. However, the agency’s newly devised plan reveals a line-up of pioneering tasks to accomplish just that.
The finalised plan involves two more spacecrafts that will be sent to Mars in 2026. The first spacecraft “Mars ascent vehicle”- a small spacecraft with a container for the samples, will land in the crater. Next, a small rover will make its way to Perseverance and collect the samples. If things go according to plan, the rover is scheduled to be in action during a season free of Martian dust storms and cold winter temperatures.
Next, the samples will be brought back to the Mars ascent vehicle which will then blast off and place the container in the Martian orbit. This will mark a historical move as no nation has ever launched a craft from the surface of Mars or any other interplanetary body for that matter.
According to the plan, the second spacecraft will manoeuvre itself next to the sample container, pick it up and fly it back to earth. This will be another first as not once in history have two spacecrafts come in contact in the Mars orbit. The spacecraft will then land on earth at high speed, probably in a training ground in Utah. The landing date according to the plan is speculated to be around September 2031.
However NASA will not pull off this impossible-sounding venture by itself. The labour has been divided between NASA and ESA. While NASA works on the Mars ascent vehicle and sample retriever lander, ESA will work on the small rover and the trip back to earth. The two agencies have also called for scientists interested in studying the resultants of this ambitious interplanetary mission. “We can learn about Mars in our own laboratories, it’s going to be fantastic” says Michael Meyer, lead scientist of the mission.
ESA recently delayed sending its first rover to Mars in partnership with the Russian Space Agency. The delay is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has also had a salient effect on NASA’s work and consequently the Mars mission. Although the spaced out schedule spread across an entire decade provides room for delay, the Mars Perseverance rover is not an undertaking that can afford such a luxury. Although, Waltzin declined to comment on the expenses, the mission is bound to cost both agencies several billions of dollars.