NASA’s Mars Sample Return Project

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NASA is planning its first-ever mission to send a rover to Mars and collect samples that will be sent back to earth. At this stage, the mission is only proposed, but steps have already been taken toward a system that can send samples home from Mars.

The program has many goals. Scientists hope to discover more about the geographical history of Mars, the formation of Mars in relation to the earth, how the two planets differ and how they are similar, and to explore the possibility that Mars may have hosted life. The program goals stemmed from NASA’s strategic plan from 2014, in which they stated they wanted to maintain a scientific presence on Mars, continue to improve technology that would allow further exploration of Mars and capitalize on opportunities that allow for further understanding of the red planet.

NASA is soliciting the public to bring forth their questions or concerns about the project. They plan to hold two virtual meetings open for the public to air their inquiries. The first is on May 4, 2022, at 1 p.m. Mountain Time, which is noon Pacific Time, 2 p.m. Central, and 3 p.m. Eastern. The second meeting will be held on May 5 at 6 p.m. Mountain Time, which is 5 p.m. Pacific Time, 7 p.m. Central, and 8 p.m. Eastern. The link to join one of these meetings can be found here: NASA Mars Sample Return Project Virtual Meeting. 

NASA
Courtesy of NASA

Illustrations of the Sample Retriever Lander have already been created, and tests of some of the robotics are already underway. For example, testing of the landing system has begun to ensure the lander can touch down safely on the surface of Mars. Inside this lander is where the rocket sits that would transport the samples of Martian material.

The rocket inboard is approximately nine feet long. The rocket atop the lander presented a unique challenge. The low level of gravity on Mars combined with the extreme force of the rocket taking off could cause the lander to move before the rocket has had its chance to leave the lander, throwing the whole launch off course. To resolve this issue, NASA has proposed a system that tosses the rocket into the air, just before it takes off. The system to do so, titled VECTOR (Vertically Ejected Controlled Tip-Off Release), has been tested 23 times thus far, and the systems head engineer Chris Chatellier believes they are on the right path.

Another unique problem this mission has unveiled is the possibility of alien bacteria on earth. There is an extremely low possibility that the mission would transport Martian microbes, but there is a chance and therefore NASA is taking special precautions. The current plan would have the samples put into another container once onboard the rocket and the outside of that container would be heat sterilized at temperatures of upwards of 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The challenge in the process is that scientists would like to keep the temperature of the samples low, as Mars has a steady temperature of under 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The plan of action is still under discussion, however, experts have agreed the risk of hazard is quite low.

NASA is also bringing back its “Send Your Name to Mars” opportunity. In 2020, they opened up the opportunity to have names engraved in the perseverance rover, which is now roaming Mars with 10.9 million names on it. They are reopening this opportunity for people to have their names engraved on a future spacecraft, which is currently undecided. NASA said the spacecraft will take off in the mid to late 2020s and be headed for Mars. The link to submit names to be engraved on a NASA spacecraft can be found here: Send Your Name to Mars!

Written by Joseph Nelson

Sources:

NPR: NASA is bringing rocks back from Mars, but what if those samples contain alien life?

SPACE: NASA wants your input on its Mars sample return project

NASA: NEPA – Mars Sample Return Campaign

NASA: NASA Begins Testing Robotics to Bring First Samples Back From Mars

Images Courtesy of NASA – Creative Commons License

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