Mars landing is just the beginning of a decade-long sample-return mission

NASA, European Space Agency will work together to return the first Martian sample to Earth

NASA’s Mars rover landing will kick off a complicated multi-mission game of tag between NASA and its international partners as they attempt to collect and return Martian rocks and soil back to Earth for the first time, which will, in turn, provide knowledge for future generations who will one day live on the red planet.

Mars 2020, also known as the Perseverance rover, is set to barrel into the Martian atmosphere Thursday afternoon, slowing from 12,500 mph to 1.5 mph before touchdown. However, surviving the landing is only step one of the sample-return plan.

NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen described the next leg of the mission as “one of the hardest things ever done by humanity and certainly in space science.”

NASA will partner with the European Space Agency to bring back the samples collected by Perseverance. It requires three rocket launches, another rover, a Mars lander, a Mars ascent vehicle and an orbiter spacecraft, most of which will be designed and managed by the ESA.

This NASA illustration of a Mars sample return mission concept shows a lander carrying a fetch rover as it touches down on the surface of Mars. (Image: NASA) (NASA 2021)

Here’s how the sample collection will play out: NASA will deliver another Mars lander near Jezero Crater where Perseverance will have collected rock and soil samples. The lander will carry a small rocket along with an ESA fetch rover. The fetch rover will gather the precious samples and carry them back to the NASA lander for transfer to a sample container that will be shot out into space where another ESA spacecraft will be waiting to rendezvous with the sample container and return the samples to Earth.

“It sounds complicated it is,” NASA’s head of planetary science Lori Glaze said during a January briefing. “If it sounds extreme, it most certainly is.”

It normally takes decades to send one robotic mission to Mars let alone three launches in under a single decade.

ESA's rendering of how the agency plans to collect samples from NASA's mars rover. (Image: ESA) (WKMG 2020)

During Tuesday’s NASA briefing, Zurbuchen estimated that if everything goes according to plan a Martian sample could be back on Earth by 2031.

“We’re entirely focused on one thing right now, which is a successful landing, we’re frankly, we’re not doing anything else,” Zurbuchen said.

Based on independent reviews of the multi-mission retrieval plan Zurbuchen said the rockets carrying the spacecraft and lander to collect the samples could launch in 2026 and 2028 because of Mars-Earth alignment.

Glaze said scientists have been pining after pristine samples from Mars for years. While researchers do have Martian meteorites to study it’s not the same as knowing exactly where your sample came from, according to Glaze.

“Samples from Mars have potential to profoundly change our understanding of the origin evolution and distribution of life on Earth, and elsewhere in the solar system,” Glaze said.

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