In addition to collecting the first samples from an ancient river delta on the Red Planet, the robotic rover has been exploring flat areas around the Jezero Crater that could serve as a landing site for the Mars sample return campaign.
This ambitious initiative, a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency, will rely on multiple missions to bring the samples collected by Perseverance and return them to Earth over the next decade. These samples will be the first Mars samples returned to Earth.
As Perseverance searches the site of an ancient lake that has existed for billions of years, it collects rocks and soil. This material is important because it could contain evidence of past microorganisms that would reveal whether life existed on Mars.
Scientists will have the opportunity to use some of the most advanced tools around the world to study these precious specimens.
The path of innovations
The campaign to return samples from Mars to Earth will begin in mid-2020, when a rocket is launched on a mission to Mars carrying a sample lander to retrieve samples and fetch the rover.
Once the probe reaches Mars, it will land near the Jezero Crater and launch the rover to retrieve samples from areas where perseverance has hidden it on Mars.
There is also the possibility that perseverance itself may keep some samples on board and deliver them to the probe.
However, the Fetch isn’t the only spacecraft making its way onto the probe. It will also deliver the Mars Ascent Rover – the first rocket ever launched from the surface of Mars, with samples safely placed inside.
A separate mission will be launched from Earth in mid-2020, called the Earth Return Orbiter, to rendezvous with the Mars Ascent Rover.
Aboard the Earth Return Orbiter is a capture/containment and return system, which will collect a container of samples from the Mars Ascent Rover while both vehicles are in orbit around Mars.
After that, the Earth’s return probe will return to our world. Once the spacecraft approaches Earth, it will launch an Earth Entry Vehicle containing a cache of samples, and that spacecraft will land on Earth in the early to mid-2030s.
Finding Mars Pie
In order to land on and take off from Mars, a typical return mission needs a flat surface with a radius of 200 feet (60 meters) without sand dunes, angled terrain, or boulders more than 7.5 inches (19 cm) in diameter to disturb the region. The flat, unobstructed terrain also makes it easy for the rover to fetch samples.
“The Perseverance team pulled all the stops for us, because Mars sample return has unique needs when it comes to where we work,” Richard Cook, director of the Mars Sample Return Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. .
“Basically, a boring landing spot is a good thing. The flatter and uninspiring the scenery, the better, because while there are plenty of things to do when we arrive to pick up samples, sightseeing isn’t one of them.”
The sample return team used the rover’s cameras to survey a flat area they call the “landing bar”. The long, flat area like the runway at an airport, previously seen in images taken by orbiters orbiting the planet. Perseverance is able to capture a better view of the earth.
“We’ve been looking at these sites since before the Perseverance landing, but images from orbit can tell you a lot,” said Al Chin, director of Mars Sample Return Systems and Integration Systems Engineering, in a statement.
“We now have some up close and personal shots of the landing runway that suggests we were right on the money. The landing strip is likely to be our shortlist of potential landing and cache locations for (the return of the Mars sample).”