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An ambitious plan to bring Mars samples back to Earth has been set into motion

Published Jul 9th, 2018 3:30PM EDT
mars rover sample return
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

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We’ve learned an incredible amount of information about Mars in the past two decades, and much of it is thanks to the small fleet of robotic rovers cruising around its surface. We’ve sent the high-priced, high-tech tools to the Red Planet so that they can send data back to us, but in order to truly understand what makes Mars tick, we’re going to need to bring a piece of the planet back to Earth.

Airbus, which has long been partnered with space agencies in the US and abroad, has just won a huge contract from the European Space Agency to build a rover that will facilitate such a mission. The deal is worth £3.9 million, which is over $5.1 million USD, and follows on the heels of the Mars 2020 mission which will include another rover built by the same company.

Landing a rover on Mars is a difficult task, but it pales in comparison to the incredible challenge of sending material from the planet back to Earth. The plan is a complicated one, but if things go well it’ll play out like this:

The Mars 2020 rover will prepare samples of the Martian surface after it safely lands on the planet. The second, yet-to-be-built rover will be sent to the planet at a later date, and when it lands it will travel to the sample sites, grab the material, and deliver them to a separate “ascent vehicle.”

That vehicle will lift off from Mars (which has never even been attempted), and enter Martian orbit. Then, yet another spacecraft will rendezvous with the ascent vehicle in Mars orbit (again, this has never been done before), transfer the samples (never been done), and then that second spacecraft will depart Mars orbit and come back to Earth (you guessed it, that’s obviously never been done either).

Clearly it would be a mission of huge firsts for humanity, but the real action will start once the samples show up here on Earth. Scientists would be able to test and study fresh material from the planet and ideally learn some very important things about Mars that could be applied to future mission, and perhaps even help us prepare for colonizing the planet at some point in the future.