NASA has detailed an ambitious plan to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for the first time.
Lead scientist for the Mars programme at NASA Michael Meyer outlined the mission in a virtual meeting reported by Nature.
The process will involve the use of multiple spacecraft and planetary rovers and span over more than a decade.
It will see NASA launch the first-ever rocket from the surface of Mars, in addition to several other untested interplanetary undertakings.
The first step of the plan is set to take place in July 2020, when NASA launches its Perseverance rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.
If the launch happens as scheduled, the rover is expected to land in Mars’s Jezero crater on 18 February 2021.
Perseverance will drive around an area which used to be covered by a river delta to look for signs of ancient Martian life.
It will drill for and scoop up material such as soil and rocks and place this in around 30 small geological sampling tubes.
Retrieving the samples
To retrieve these samples, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) plan to send two spacecraft to Mars in 2026.
The first will land in the Jezero crater in 2028 and launch a small rover, which will collect the sample tubes from Perseverance.
This rover will then proceed to offload the tubes to what NASA called a “Mars ascent vehicle” – a small rocket which houses a container for the tubes.
Once this is completed, the rocket will lift off to put its container into Mars’s orbit.
The second spacecraft will position itself next to the container, collect it and travel back to Earth.
It will plunge back to the surface of Earth at high speed, likely landing in a military training ground in Utah in September 2031.
Analysed from a distance
NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Head Jim Watzin said the endeavour is “by no means an easy task”, but added that NASA has “kept it as simple as possible”.
Perseverance will be the fifth rover NASA has sent to Mars, following Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity.
The rovers form part of NASA’s long-term Mars Exploration Program, which was formed in 1993.
The space agency has been able to analyse collected material from these vehicles through their onboard hardware but has never returned any of these samples to Earth.
One of the biggest discoveries it made through Curiosity was evidence of liquid water under Mars’s surface, which was announced in April 2015.