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NASA is going to return an ancient Mars rock to its home planet

An incredibly old Martian relic will soon be headed back from the planet where it originated thanks to the Mars 2020 mission. The space agency is planning on taking a piece of the meteorite known as Sayh al Uhaymir (SaU008) and including it in their highly-anticipated rover adventure to the Red Planet.

The rock, which was part of a larger meteorite discovery back in 1999, is thought to have originated on Mars. A chunk of the planet is believed to have been blown off into space by an impact, and the debris found its way to Earth. Now it will play a vital role is helping to calibrate the scientific tools on board the all-new rover.

“Mars 2020’s goal is ambitious: collect samples from the Red Planet’s surface that a future mission could potentially return to Earth,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains. “One of the rover’s many tools will be a laser designed to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair.”

That’s great, but in order for the system to work up to its full potential it needs to be calibrated after landing on the Martian surface using some type of hard material. So, in the spirit of the red planet, JPL scientists decided that using an actual piece of Mars from here on Earth would be the perfect test candidate.

“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” JPL’s Luther Beegle explains. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”

The rock should work perfectly for the test, and NASA sending it to Mars will mark another huge first for the space agency. Never before has material from another planet been returned by humans, and while that might seem like a meaningless statistic, it’s still a monumental achievement in the grand scheme of space exploration.