In 100 days, NASA's Perseverance rover will land on the Martian surface and begin its mission on the Red Planet. While roaming Mars, the robotic explorer will collect samples of rock and set them aside for a future return to Earth.
The Mars Sample Return mission is a first-of-its-kind attempt to collect physical samples from another planet, and examine them in a laboratory down here on Earth.
As challenging as it sounds, NASA just got the 'go-ahead' from an independent review board that confirmed the space agency is in fact ready to take on this unprecedented task — but not on their original timeline.
NASA released a review report of its Mars Sample Return mission on Tuesday. The report concluded the space agency is prepared for the upcoming mission that will revolutionize what scientists know about the evolution of Mars.
NASA formed the Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board in order to evaluate the agency's initial concepts of how to carry out the mission.
“After a thorough review of the agency’s planning over the past several years, the IRB unanimously believes that NASA is now ready to carry out the MSR program, the next step for robotic exploration of Mars," David Thompson, retired president and CEO of Orbital ATK and chair of the board, said during a media teleconference on Tuesday.
The review board included 10 scientists and engineers who met over 25 sessions from late August 2019 to the end of October this year. The board made 44 recommendations to address potential areas of concern regarding the program’s scope and management, technical approach, schedule, and funding, according to NASA.
"As the first round trip mission to another planet, the [Mars Sample Return] program is a highly ambitious, technically demanding, and operationally complex program," Thompson added. "Therefore, we strongly recommend that the program should be conducted with rigorous technical and managerial approaches that are fully consistent with those of recent NASA missions."
One of the major recommendations from the board is to delay the launch date of the Mars Sample Return mission from the year 2026 to 2027 or 2028.
The original plan, which is still in early stages of development, includes two launches for the year 2026 — one to send the European Space Agency's Earth Return Orbiter to Mars and another to follow up with NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander.
The orbiter would circle Mars, while NASA's lander would drop a stationary lander, the ESA-provided Sample Fetch Rover, and a small rocket, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, near Perseverance rover's landing site in Jezero Crater.
That's where Perseverance will stow away the samples once its robotic arm has collected them.
The fetch rover will then pick up the rock samples, which will be sealed in tubes, and transport them back to the small rocket. The rocket will launch into Mars' orbit, and drop off the samples mid-flight, where they will then be picked up by ESA's orbiting spacecraft.
If all goes according to plan and this intricate space maneuvering is pulled off, then scientists will be able to get their hands on the first-ever sample returned back from another planet.
And it's not just any planet. Mars is of particular interest to scientists due to its complicated history. Although Mars is a dry, desolate world today, scientists believe that the Red Planet was once a warm, wet world that may have harbored some form of life.
Examining Martian rocks will help scientists figure out how the planet evolved over billions of years and look for signs of ancient Martian life.
Previous NASA rovers have conducted analysis of rocks while they roamed the surface of the Red Planet. But lab analysis is on a completely different level.
"We’ve done a lot of analysis with Mars rocks on the surface of Mars, clearly those have been very valuable of improving our understanding of the early history of the planet," Zuber said during the teleconference.
"But what you can do with bringing a rock back to the lab, just by analogy the Moon rocks we brought back 50 years ago, we are still making state of the art discoveries because instrumentation in the lab has continued to improve," she said.
By analyzing the Martian rocks, scientists can establish the age of a sample and understand their geological context, which would allow them to reconstruct the history of the area from which the samples were collected, according to Zuber.
NASA will examine and address the board's recommendations over the next year before it begins finalizing its plans for the sample return mission.