Quick history recap
Mars has fascinated humanity for centuries! As we’ve already narrated at the beginning of this other insight about Mars, humanity has long tried to expand its knowledge and understanding of the Red Planet. If at the beginning of the Space Race it seemed logical that the next step after the Moon would have been Mars, later it appeared brutally clear that the challenge we were facing was far more difficult than we thought it would be.
Once we agreed that humanity wasn’t ready and technically prepared to send astronauts to Mars, we started looking for other ways to explore that distant world. Robotic exploration was the obvious answer, but with that, one big problem comes along: it’s possible to do just a limited amount of scientific research with landers or rovers on site. Unfortunately, the cargo it’s restricted by how much payload your rocket can lift.
“Unless you’re a soviet engineer that comes up with a plan to use the biggest rocket ever designed to send a payload to the Red Planet!
As many times before that, the USSR came up before other countries with ideas to send probes to other planets and the plan was bonkers!”
Mission code “5NM”, the rocket used N1, objective: sending an immense 20 tonnes probe to collect samples and send it back to Earth. By comparison, the biggest probe sent to Mars to date just exceeds 1 ton…
Unfortunately, N1 never made it to orbit and, like many others plans to use the giant rocket, it was scrapped. However, together with the USSR, other countries in the coming decades came up with ideas to collect and send back martian samples, but none ever made it off the drawing board.
Mars Exploration Program (MEP)
Here it comes the so-called “Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group” (MEPAG) which serves as a community-based, interdisciplinary forum for inquiry and analysis to support NASA’s Mars exploration objectives.
MEPAG is responsible for providing the scientific input needed to plan and prioritize Mars exploration activities that, in the years, have been united into the “Mars Exploration Program” alias MEP.
In the early 2000s the MEPAG came up with a few different ideas to bring back martian samples, but none of them went beyond the drawing board. Until 2009, when NASA and ESA established the “Mars Exploration Joint Initiative” to proceed with the ExoMars program, whose ultimate aim was “the return of samples from Mars in the 2020s”.
ExoMars’s first mission was planned to launch in 2018, with unspecified missions to return samples in the 2020–2022 time frame. The cancellation of the caching rover MAX-C in 2011 (which was responsible for collecting various samples left on the martian surface), and later NASA’s withdrawal from ExoMars, due to budget limitations, ended the program.
In early 2011, the US National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which laid out mission planning priorities for 2013–2022, declared the MSR campaign the “most important effort” for that period.
A key mission requirement for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission was that it helped prepare for MSR. This time, NASA played a bold move by incorporating all the instrumentation needed to collect samples onto the Perseverance rover without knowing if a collective mission would have been funded in the coming years.
Perseverance landed safely into the Jezero crater in February 2021 and started collecting samples, but now what? Thanks to the brilliant minds at NASA and ESA that created the Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign now, after years of delays and cancellations, we’ve finally got a plan that is gonna result in one of the most difficult planetary robotic missions ever attempted!
Mars Sample Return would be one of the most ambitious campaigns ever attempted in space.— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) November 17, 2022
But bringing those samples to Earth will be no easy feat, requiring multiple spacecraft to pick up the samples, launch off the Martian surface, and ferry them back to our planet. pic.twitter.com/CCWjeO87WU
A Sample Return Lander would land near or in Jezero Crater, bringing a small rocket on which the samples collected by Perseverance would be loaded. Two Ingenuity-like helicopters would provide a secondary capability to retrieve samples on the surface of Mars. Once the capsule with the samples is launched off the Red Planet, another spacecraft would capture it in Mars orbit, and then bring it back to Earth safely and securely in the early to mid-2030s.
Let’s dig further into the major tasks and related systems design.
Sample Retrieval Lander
NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander would touch down on Mars and remain in place to receive a diverse collection of scientifically curated samples of Martian rock already collected and cached by NASA’s Perseverance rover.
Sample Recovery Helicopters
The Sample Recovery Helicopters (an improved version of the precedent Sample Recovery Rover) are designed after the successful Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, carried to the Red Planet by NASA’s Perseverance rover. These specialized rotorcraft will be a secondary method for sample retrieval.
As of today, the Perseverance rover, which has already been collecting a diverse set of scientifically curated samples, is planned as the primary method of delivering samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander.
The Sample Recovery Helicopters will expand on Ingenuity’s design, adding wheels and gripping capabilities to pick up cached sample tubes left on the surface by Perseverance and transport them to the Sample Retrieval Lander.
Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV)
Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) is a two-stage, solid-fueled rocket that will deliver the collected samples from the surface of Mars to the Earth Return Orbiter. This little launcher, once it’ll lift off, will be the first rocket to launch from another Planet.
Capture, Containment, Return System and Earth Entry System
The Capture, Containment, and Return System aboard the Earth Return Orbiter will capture the Orbiting Sample container, orient it, and transfer it into a clean zone for return to Earth.
Then, the ESA Earth Return Orbiter will carry the NASA-provided Capture, Containment, and Return System and Earth Entry System. The orbiter would launch from Earth in 2027 and meet the sample capsule in Mars orbit.
The return system within the orbiter would capture and contain the samples, placing them in the Earth Entry System. The Earth Return Orbiter would then ferry the entry vehicle and its precious cargo back to the vicinity of Earth, where it would separate and safely touch down on land.
Finally, the Earth Entry System would contain the orbiting sample inside a disk-shaped vehicle with a heat shield for safe entry through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Preview of next Insight
These first collected and returned samples could answer a key question: did life ever exist on Mars? Only by bringing the samples back we can truly answer the question by using the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art labs, at a time when future generations can study them using techniques yet to be invented.
In this article that you’ve just read, we focused on the story around the Mars sample’s return and the events that led to actual plans. In the following Insight, we’re going to dig much more into it, including an awesome “one more thing”.