NASA’s Mars 2020 rover on the prowl and geared to collect and cache samples for future return to Earth.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Update: NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget released today initiates a Mars sample return mission to retrieve specimens from Mars, and return those samples with the first launch from another planet.

A Mars sample return mission would incorporate commercial and international partnerships.

The NASA budget provides funding for a Mars sample return mission launching as early as 2026 that will bring samples collected by Mars 2020 back to Earth.

Return of samples from the surface of Mars has been a goal of the international Mars science community for many years.

Strategies for the collection of such Red Planet collectibles have ranged from “grab and go” acquisition from the surface, to dust collection in the atmosphere, to scientific selection by geologically capable rovers.

For state‐of‐the‐art high‐precision radioisotope analyses, sample handling and chemical processing in a clean laboratory such as the one shown here are typically required.
Credit: Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University

Cooperation and collaboration

In 2017, the space exploration programs associated with the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) began discussion of a formal program of cooperation and collaboration among space‐faring nations related to Mars sample return, or MSR for short.

As input to this, the international MSR Objectives and Samples Team (iMOST) was chartered by IMEWG to address key science planning questions.

The outcome of this study – “The potential science and engineering value of samples delivered to Earth by Mars sample return” — has been issued in the journal, Meteoritics & Planetary Science, published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of The Meteoritical Society.

NASA Mars 2020 rover is designed to collect samples, store the specimens in tubes, then deposit the tubes on the surface for later pick-up.
Credit: NASA/ESA

Sharp focus

The deployment of NASA’s Mars 2020 sample‐collecting rover has brought the issues associated with the completion of Mars sample return into sharp focus.

That rover is set to collect and cache geological samples for possible eventual return to Earth. The transportation to Earth would require a sample‐retrieval mission, one that could also collect atmospheric samples, and an Earth‐return mission.

Involvement of the international community in these missions would be very beneficial in terms of sharing cost, risk, and benefit, according to the iMOST report.

The five geologic environments of primary interest to interpret the primary geologic processes and history that formed the Martian geologic record, with an emphasis on the role of water.
Credit: iMOST

Retrieval questions

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover has more sample tubes than are intended to be returned.

In that case, some future team associated with the retrieval missions will make decisions about which samples to return. The iMOST report may help provide the technical basis for those decisions.

iMOST report notes there’s need to constrain the nature of the potential hazards to future human exploration. The five primary knowledge gaps are highlighted.
Credit: iMOST



Additionally, among other aspects of the report, its aimed at supporting planning for the curation needed to preserve the samples and instrumental facilities required to make the measurements associated with achieving the objectives of Mars sample return.


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