Samples from Mars: the long way back to Earth

Samples from Mars: the long way back to Earth

It is the site of an ancient bed of lake and river delta that existed between 3 and 4 billion years ago, when Mars was warmer, wetter, and more habitable for potential life.

The complicated journey of the Mars mission return mission involves NASA collaborating with the European Space Agency and international partners. Given the difficulty of this multitudinous journey of returning samples, they will not fall to Earth until 2031, at the earliest.

“Perseverance is the first step in the first round-trip mission to another planet in our solar system,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Division of Planetary Sciences at NASA’s Washington headquarters. , during a press conference. “Scientists have wanted a sample of Mars to study for generations. Now, we are at a point to start trying this amazing feat.”

Go back in time

Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a “young surface” because it is not active in the same way that our planet is with plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions and other things that tend to erase the history sitting on the surface of the Earth. Earth. Thus, as Perseverance moves through the Jezero crater, you will be able to observe and experience Mars ’well-preserved past.

Scientists estimate that water filled the impact crater to form a lake about 3.8 billion years ago, just as life began on Earth, according to Briony Horgan, a member of the Perseverance science team and associate professor. of Planetary Sciences from Purdue University. The lake was half the size of Lake Ontario (which is 53 miles wide and has an average depth of 283 feet) and almost as deep.

The river delta, which resembles the Mississippi River delta, once fed into the lake and means that the lake persisted for a long time. On the other side of the lake bed, you can see a river channel through which water flowed away from the crater.

The Mars 2020 rover will look for fossils and signs of ancient life

The delta may be the most intriguing area to explore for perseverance because it preserves the bottom of the lake: mud, organic materials, signs of ancient life and possibly even microbial fossils could be preserved at the bottom of the delta, Horgan said.

Based on images provided by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005, Scientists already know that there are interesting minerals around the edge of the crater called carbonates. On Earth, carbonates preserve fossils from ancient life. These carbonates mark what scientists believe was an ancient lake shoreline. When water precipitated here, it could have helped fossilize life or organic molecules that mean it in the form of carbonates.

The ancient paths of Mars paved the way for NASA's latest exploratory Perseverance

First, Perseverance will explore the river delta, followed by the edge of the crater, and eventually “get out of the crater and explore the wonders of the first history of Mars,” according to Benjamin Weiss, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Massachusetts. Technology and one of the scientists shown returned for perseverance. Weiss is on a team that will determine where and when samples should be collected, and hopes to analyze them once they return to Earth.

The first Martian samples

Perseverance has a sophisticated system for collecting samples, caching them, and dragging them to the Martian surface. And to do so, their hardware on Earth had to be thoroughly cleaned to prevent any possible contamination of the Martian site with microbes from Earth or provide a false positive for a potential life on Mars.

“It’s the cleanest system we’ve ever launched,” said Matt Wallace, deputy director of Perseverance projects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The scientific community is looking for signatures of traces from billions of years ago. We don’t want to confuse that search.”

While perseverance has the capacity to fill 43 sample tubes over its two-year exploration of the 28-mile-wide crater and the surrounding area, there will only be space for 31 of the tubes to return to Earth.

Perseverance will do things no rover has ever tried on Mars and will pave the way for humans

Thus, the science team, which includes hundreds of people, will have to work together when and where to collect samples. The difference in the number of samples the rover can collect from those that will be returned provides scientists with a bit of room if they decide to leave a sample for a better one.

But once filled, the tubes cannot be emptied.

“The key to this mission will be to identify samples so compelling that we can’t afford to leave them, so it’s imperative that missions have to do them,” Weiss said. “We select them for humanity, so we have to make sure they are the most exciting.”

NASA has just opened an untouched Moon rock show

Scientists will look for patterns or textures in rocks that act as life records, similar to some of the oldest known rocks on Earth in Western Australia from 3.48 billion years ago.

The Perseverance Science Team visited and studied these rocks to prepare for the mission. For example, microbes in the bottom of a body of water form a film that creates a different layer between water and mud.

Over time, these form layered rocks called stromatolites.

“The best place to look for life is a place where you think life could have existed,” said Ken Farley, a project scientist for Perseverance at the California Institute of Technology. “The current surface of Mars is too cold and too dry for any life we ​​know existed. Billions of years ago it was much warmer with water in the surface The rocks deposited at that time were in habitable environments and are recorded “.

The unique moon dust grain collected during Apollo 17 & # 39; preserves millions of years of history & # 39;

Lunar samples returned to Earth by Apollo missions have changed our understanding of the moon over the past 50 years, including how it may have formed.

Weiss has worked on the research using samples collected during the last years of the Apollo program. Some have remained sealed for 50 years until new technologies and tools were developed to help them better understand them.

Weiss wants to take the same approach to the Mars samples.

“We can’t get caught selecting samples just based on what current instruments can measure,” Weiss said. “We can’t conceive of instruments like 100 years from now. But if we show places that can be livable, that will keep them interesting for years to come.”

Returning the samples to Earth

Sampling on Mars the surface is only the first step.

“It’s a really complex concept to get them back,” Glaze said. “Multiple steps and multiple releases required.”

While the timeline seems to have extended, compared to the normal pace of missions launched to Mars during the seven-month shifts when it is aligned with Earth on the same side of the sun, these launches are geared. to establish proper orbits, arrival times and departures from Mars. depending on the required calendar and even the seasons of the year.

In 2026, NASA and ESA will launch the Mars Ascent Vehicle rocket and rocket that will carry the Sample Fetch Rover. Perseverance will witness and share images of the landing of this spacecraft on Mars when it occurs in 2028, a first.

Mars launch: NASA sends the Perseverance rover into space

The owner will release the rover fetch on the Martian surface. This little rover, similar to NASA’s previous rotators, will collect the samples and take them back to the recipient. Perseverance may also be able to deliver samples.

During the course of the recovery process, it will need to work quickly eight months during the Martian spring and summer before the winter dust darkened the atmosphere. This lightweight “Bugian dune Martian” will be designed for speed to achieve its goals, said David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency.

This illustration shows a concept of what might look like a rover that obtained samples of rock and earth on Mars to return to Earth.

Samples will be transferred to the boarding vehicle and will explode from the surface of Mars, another of which will witness Perseverance.

The boarding vehicle will meet with an ESA spacecraft orbiting Mars and fire a football-sized container with the samples. The ESA orbit will capture the container during this passage between spacecraft and returns to Earth.

This illustration shows a concept of how the sampling vehicle NASA could be launched from the surface of Mars.

Near Earth, a NASA payload into orbit will place the sample container in an incoming vehicle that can be deployed from orbit and land the samples on Earth in 2031.

Samples will land in Utah and be transported to a facility commonly associated with biohazard handling.

This illustration shows a concept for a vehicle ascending to Mars (left) that releases a sample container (right) high above the Martian surface.

Scientists from around the world will then be able to study and analyze the chemical and physical properties of these rock and earth samples for Mars, looking for signs of past life.

“This is the manifestation of many of the dreams and aspirations of scientists,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Directorate of Scientific Missions. “Mars samples have the potential to profoundly change our understanding of life.”

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