NASA’s Perseverance rover has been on the surface of Mars for just about eight months now, and in that time, it has taken samples of Martian rock to determine what secrets may be contained within. Perseverance, however, is not going to analyze these samples itself on the surface of Mars, but rather NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working on a multi-mission schedule to bring those samples back to Earth for analysis later this decade.
This mission, dubbed simply “Mars Sample Return,” is still being developed, but NASA and the ESA are already aware of the logistical problems that lay before them in bringing these samples back to Earth. As explained in a new post on the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab website, Mars Sample Return demands multiple missions that send an orbiter, a lander, and even a new rover to Mars.
The way NASA explains it, that new rover will collect the samples from Perseverance, which will then be loaded into the tip of a rocket by a robotic arm on the lander. From there, the samples will be transported to the orbiter, where they will be packaged securely for a return trip to Earth. By analyzing these samples on Earth, scientists will have access to lab technology that couldn’t feasibly be sent to Mars.
Of course, this isn’t as simple as packing samples in a vial and sending them back to Earth. While it’s safe to say that NASA is confident it won’t be shipping back living Martian organisms, it still has to make sure that those samples aren’t contaminated on the return trip and won’t contaminate anything upon their arrival to Earth.
In today’s post, NASA explains the challenges in ensuring these rock core samples are sent back in sealed and secure containers that aren’t going to let any Martian dust out. One solution NASA is experimenting with involves packing the samples into titanium vials and then sealing them with a process called brazing, where metal is melted to essentially glue lids to the vials and sterilize any dust caught in the seam.
“Among our biggest technical challenges right now is that inches away from metal that’s melting at about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (or 538 degrees Celsius) we have to keep these extraordinary Mars samples below the hottest temperature they might have experienced on Mars, which is about 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius),” said Brendan Feehan, a systems engineer with the Goddard team developing the system to return these samples to Earth. “Initial results from the testing of our brazing solution have affirmed that we’re on the right path.”
NASA’s work with these rock samples from Mars could pave the way for returning samples from all sorts of celestial bodies in the solar system. It doesn’t sound like it’ll be an easy job, but it does seem that NASA is on the right track toward figuring it out. Still, even with work in progress, it will be years before we get those samples back to Earth, so we’ll keep you posted as NASA gets closer to its goal. In the meantime, check out a conceptual animation of what such a mission might look like in the video embedded above.