Mars sample-return mission

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Mars sample return – artist's concept

A Mars sample-return (MSR) mission is a proposed mission to collect rock and dust samples on Mars and return them to Earth.[1] Such a mission would allow more extensive analysis than that allowed by onboard sensors.[2]

The three most recent concepts are a NASAESA proposal, a CNSA proposal, Tianwen-3, and a Roscosmos proposal, Mars-Grunt. Although NASA and ESA's plans to return the samples to Earth are still in the design stage as of 2022, samples have been gathered on Mars by the Perseverance rover.[3]

Risks of cross-contamination of the Earth biosphere from returned Martian samples have been raised, though the risk of this occurring is considered to be extremely low.[4]

Scientific value[edit]

Mars meteorites in the Natural History Museum in Vienna

Once returned to Earth, stored samples can be studied with the most sophisticated science instruments available. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, expect such studies to allow several new discoveries at many fields.[5] Samples may be reanalyzed in the future by instruments that do not yet exist.[6]

In 2006, the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group identified 55 important investigations related to Mars exploration. In 2008, they concluded that about half of the investigations "could be addressed to one degree or another by MSR", making MSR "the single mission that would make the most progress towards the entire list" of investigations. Moreover, it was reported that a significant fraction of the investigations could not be meaningfully advanced without returned samples.[7]

One source of Mars samples is what are thought to be Martian meteorites, which are rocks ejected from Mars that made their way to Earth. As of April 2019, 266 meteorites had been identified as Martian, out of over 61,000 known meteorites.[8] These meteorites are believed to be from Mars because their elemental and isotopic compositions are similar to rocks and atmospheric gases analyzed on Mars.[9]


Artist concept of a Mars sample-return mission, 1993

For at least three decades, scientists have advocated the return of geological samples from Mars.[10] One early concept was the Sample Collection for Investigation of Mars (SCIM) proposal, which involved sending a spacecraft in a grazing pass through Mars's upper atmosphere to collect dust and air samples without landing or orbiting.[11]

The Soviet Union considered a Mars sample-return mission, Mars 5NM, in 1975 but it was cancelled due to the repeated failures of the N1 rocket that would have launched it. Another sample-return mission, Mars 5M (Mars-79), planned for 1979, was cancelled due to complexity and technical problems.[12]

In the late 1980's, multiple NASA centers contributed to a proposed Mars Rover Sample Return mission (MRSR).[13][14] As described by JPL authors, one option for MRSR relied on a single launch of a 12-ton package including a Mars orbiter and Earth return vehicle, a 700-kg rover, and a 2.7-ton Mars ascent vehicle which would use pump-fed liquid propulsion for a significant mass saving.[15] A 20-kg sample package on the MAV was to contain 5 kg of Mars soil. A Johnson Space Center author subsequently referred to a launch from Earth in 1998 with a MAV mass in the range 1400 to 1500 kg including a pump-fed first stage and a pressure-fed second stage.[16]

The United States' Mars Exploration Program, formed after Mars Observer's failure in September 1993, supported a Mars sample return.[17] One architecture was proposed by Glenn J. MacPherson in the early 2000s.[18]

In 1996, the possibility of life on Mars was raised when apparent microfossils were thought to have been found in Mars meteorite, ALH84001. This hypothesis was eventually rejected, but led to a renewed interest in a Mars sample return.[19]

As of late 1999, the MSR mission was anticipated to be launched from Earth in 2003 and 2005.[20] Each was to deliver a rover and a Mars ascent vehicle, and a French supplied Mars orbiter with Earth return capability was to be included in 2005. Sample containers orbited by both MAVs were to reach Earth in 2008. This mission concept, considered by NASA's Mars Exploration Program to return samples by 2008,[21] was cancelled following a program review.[22]

In the summer of 2001, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) requested mission concepts and proposals from industry-led teams (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and TRW).[23] The science requirements included at least 500 grams of samples, rover mobility to obtain samples at least 1 kilometer from the landing spot, and drilling to obtain one sample from a depth of 2 meters. That following winter, JPL made similar requests of certain university aerospace engineering departments (MIT and the University of Michigan).

Also in 2001, a separate set of industry studies was done for the Mars ascent vehicle (MAV) due to the uniqueness and key role of the MAV for MSR.[24] Figure 11 in this reference summarized the need for MAV flight testing at a high altitude over Earth, based on Lockheed Martin's analysis that the risk of mission failure is "extremely high" if launch vehicle components are only tested separately.

In 2003, JPL reported that the mission concepts from 2001 had been deemed too costly, which led to the study of a more affordable plan accepted by two groups of scientists, a new MSR Science Steering Group and the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG).[25] Instead of a rover and deep drilling, a scoop on the lander would dig 20 centimeters deep and place multiple samples together into one container. After five years of technology development, the MAV would be flight-tested twice above Earth before the mission PDR (Preliminary Design Review) in 2009.

In 2004, JPL published an update on the 2003 plan.[26] MSR would use the new large skycrane landing system in development for the Mars Science Laboratory mission (later named Curiosity). A MSR Technology Board was formed, and it was noted that the use of a rover might return to the MSR plan, in light of success with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that arrived early in 2004. A 285-kg ascent rocket would carry 0.5 kg of samples inside a 5-kg payload, the Orbiting Sample (OS). The MAV would transmit enough telemetry to reconstruct events in case of failure on the way up to Mars orbit.

As of 2005, a rover had returned to the MSR plan, with a rock core drill in light of results from the Mars Exploration Rover discoveries.[27] Focused technology development would start before the end of 2005 for mission PDR in 2009, followed by launch from Earth in 2013. Related technologies in development included potential advances for Mars arrival (navigation and descent propulsion) and implementing pump-fed liquid launch vehicle technology on a scale small enough for a MAV. [28]

In late 2005, a peer-reviewed analysis showed that ascent trajectories to Mars orbit would differ depending on liquid versus solid propulsion, largely because small solid rocket motors burn faster, requiring a steeper ascent path to avoid excess atmospheric drag, while slower burning liquid propulsion might take advantage of more efficient paths to orbit.[29]

Early in 2006, the Marshall Space Flight Center noted the possibility that a science rover would cache the samples on Mars, then subsequently a mini-rover would be sent along with the MAV on a sample return lander, in which case either the mini-rover or the science rover would deliver the samples to the lander for loading onto the MAV.[30] A two-stage 250-kg solid propellant MAV would be gas ejected from a launch tube with its 5-kg payload, a 16-cm diameter spherical package containing the samples. The second stage would send telemetry and its steering thrusters would use hydrazine fuel with additives. The authors expected the MAV to need multiple flight tests at a high altitude over Earth.

In mid-2006, the International Mars Architecture for the Return of Samples (iMARS) Working Group was chartered by the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) to outline the scientific and engineering requirements of an internationally sponsored and executed Mars sample-return mission in the 2018–2023 time frame.[7]

In 2009, the Chief Technologist of the Mars Exploration Directorate at JPL referred to a 2008 workshop on MSR technologies at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and wrote that particularly difficult technology challenges included the MAV, sample acquisition and handling, and back planetary protection, then further commented that "The MAV, in particular, stands out as the system with highest development risk, pointing to the need for an early start" leading to flight testing before preliminary design review (PDR) of the lander that would deliver the MAV.[31]

In October 2009, NASA and ESA established the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative to proceed with the ExoMars program, whose ultimate aim is "the return of samples from Mars in the 2020s".[32][33] ExoMars's first mission was planned to launch in 2018 [6][34] with unspecified missions to return samples in the 2020–2022 time frame.[35] The cancellation of the caching rover MAX-C in 2011, and later NASA withdrawal from ExoMars, due to budget limitations, ended the mission.[36] The pull-out was described as "traumatic" for the science community.[36]

In early 2011, the US National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which laid out mission planning priorities for the period 2013–2022, declared an MSR campaign its highest priority Flagship Mission for that period.[37] In particular, it endorsed the proposed Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher (MAX-C) mission in a "descoped" (less ambitious) form. This mission plan was officially cancelled in April 2011.

In September 2012, NASA announced its intention to further study several strategies of bringing a sample of Mars to Earth – including a multiple launch scenario, a single-launch scenario, and a multiple-rover scenario – for a mission beginning as early as 2018.[38][39] A "fetch rover" would retrieve the sample caches and deliver them to a Mars ascent vehicle (MAV). In July 2018, NASA contracted Airbus to produce a "fetch rover" concept.[40][41][42]

In April 2018, a letter of intent was signed by NASA and ESA that may provide a basis for a Mars sample-return mission.[43][44] In July 2019, a mission architecture was proposed.[45][46]

In 2019, JPL authors summarized sample retrieval, including a sample fetch rover, options for fitting 20 or 30 sample tubes into a 12-kg payload on a 400-kg single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) MAV that would use hybrid propellants, a liquid oxidizer with a solid wax fuel, which had been prioritized for propulsion technology development since 2016.[47] Meanwhile, the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) presented a comparison of solid and hybrid propulsion for the MAV.[48] Later in 2019, MSFC and JPL had collaborated on designing a two-stage solid propellant MAV, and noted that an unguided spinning upper stage could reduce mass, but this approach was abandoned at the time due to the potential for orbital variations.[49]

Early in 2020, JPL updated the overall mission plan for an orbiting sample package with 30 tubes, showing solid and hybrid MAV options in the range 400 to 500 kg.[50] Adding details, MSFC presented designs for both the solid and hybrid MAV designs, for a target mass of 400 kg at Mars liftoff to deliver 20 or 30 sample tubes in a 14- to 16-kg payload package.[51][52] In April 2020, an updated version of the mission was presented.[53] The decision to adopt a two-stage solid rocket MAV was followed by Design Analysis Cycle 0.0 in the spring of 2020, which refined the MAV to a 525-kg design having guidance for both stages, leading to reconsideration of an unguided spin-stabilized second stage to save mass.[54]

Early in 2022, MSFC presented the guided-unguided MAV design for a 125-kg mass reduction and documented remaining challenges including aerodynamic complexities during the first stage burn and coast to altitude, a desire to locate hydrazine steering thrusters farther from the center of mass, and stage separation without tip-off rotation.[55] While stage separation and spin-up would be flight tested, the authors noted that it would be ideal to flight test an entire flight-like MAV, but there would be a large cost.

A key mission requirement for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission was that it help prepare for MSR.[56][57][39] The rover landed on 18 February 2021 in Jezero Crater to collect samples and store them in 43 cylindrical tubes for later retrieval.

Mars 2020 mission[edit]

Mapping Perseverance's samples collected to date
Facsimiles of Perseverance's sample tubes at JPL in Southern California
In support of the Mars sample-return mission, rock, regolith (Martian 'soil'), and atmosphere samples are being cached by Perseverance. Currently, out of 43 sample tubes, rock sample tubes cached: 14,[58] atmosphere sample tubes cached: 1,[59] witness tubes cached: 3,[60] tubes due to be cached: 25. Before launch, 5 of the 43 tubes were designated “witness tubes” and filled with materials that would capture particulates in the ambient environment of Mars.[61]

The Mars 2020 mission landed the Perseverance rover in Jezero crater in February 2021. It collected multiple samples and packed them into cylinders for later return. Jezero appears to be an ancient lakebed, suitable for ground sampling.[62][63][64]

In the beginning of August 2021, Perseverance made its first attempt to collect a ground sample by drilling out a finger-size core of Martian rock.[65] This attempt did not succeed. A drill hole was produced, as indicated by instrument readings, and documented by a photograph of the drill hole. However, the sample container turned out to be empty, indicating that the rock sampled was not robust enough to produce a solid core.[66]

A second target rock judged to have a better chance to yield a sufficiently robust sample was sampled at the end of August and the beginning of September 2021. After abrading the rock, cleaning away dust by puffs of pressurized nitrogen, and inspecting the resulting rock surface, a hole was drilled on September 1. A rock sample appeared to be in the tube, but it was not immediately placed in a container. A new procedure of inspecting the tube optically was performed.[67] On September 6, the process was completed and the first sample placed in a container.[68]

List of samples cached[edit]

Sample Details
Sampling Attempt Date Tube No. Seal No. Ferrule Prefix[note 1] Ferrule No. Contents Sample Name and Image Rock Name Core Length[note 2] Estimated Martian Atmosphere Headspace Gas[note 3] Location Notes
1 22 June 2021
(Sol 121)
SN061 SN147 10464848-7 SN090[69] Witness Tube (Empty) N/A N/A N/A 2.2 x 10−6 mol North Séítah Unit[70] This was taken as a dry-run in preparation for later sampling attempts, and did not aim to sample a rock. During final pre-launch activities, this witness tube was activated (the inner seal was punctured to begin accumulation) and placed in the Bit Carousel. This tube will therefore have accumulated contaminants for the entire duration of exposure from a few months before launch through cruise and EDL until it was sealed on the surface of Mars. Given its long exposure, it is likely that the inner surfaces of WB1 will be saturated with organic contaminants, i.e., they will be in adsorption equilibrium with theirimmediate surroundings in the rover (and or the entire spacecraft prior to landing). WB1 is therefore expected to have higher concentrations of contaminants, and potentially different contaminants, than the sample tubes.
2 6 August 2021
(Sol 165)
SN233 SN025 10464848-7 SN062 Atmospheric Gas PIA24799-MarsPerseveranceRover-SampleTubeInCoringDrill-20210806 (cropped).jpg
Roubion (failed attempt of caching rock sample)
18°25′40″N 77°27′06″E / 18.42767°N 77.45167°E / 18.42767; 77.45167
N/A 4.9x10−6 mol Polygon Valley, Cratered Floor Fractured Rough Unit[71] Attempted to sample the rock but did not succeed, as they didn't reach the bit carousel and the caching system stored and sealed an empty tube. However, in this process, it collected atmospheric samples.
3 6 September 2021
(Sol 195)
SN266 SN170 10464848-6 SN099[72] Basalt (or possibly basaltic sandstone) Rock Sample 1st Perseverance Rock Sample Montdenier 01.jpg
18°25′51″N 77°26′40″E / 18.43074°N 77.44433°E / 18.43074; 77.44433
5.98 cm (2.35 in) 1.2x10−6 mol Arturby Ridge, Citadelle, South Séítah Unit Successful sample.[73][74][75]
4 8 September 2021
(Sol 197)
SN267 SN170 10464848-6 SN074[76] 2nd Perseverance Rock Sample Montagnac.jpg
6.14 cm (2.42 in) 1.3x10−6 mol Sampled from same rock as previous sample.
5 15 November 2021
(Sol 263)
SN246 SN194 10464848-5 SN107[77] Olivine cumulate Rock Sample 3rd Perseverance Rock Sample Salette.png
18°26′02″N 77°26′35″E / 18.43398°N 77.44305°E / 18.43398; 77.44305
6.28 cm (2.47 in) 1.1 x10−6 mol Brac Outcrop, South Séítah Unit
6 24 November 2021
(Sol 272)
SN284 SN219 10464848-6 SN189[77] 4th Perseverance Rock Sample Coulettes.jpg
3.30 cm (1.30 in) 2.5 x10−6 mol
7 22 December 2021
(Sol 299)
SN206 SN184 10464848-7 SN064 5th Perseverance Rock Sample Robine.jpg
18°25′58″N 77°26′29″E / 18.43264°N 77.44134°E / 18.43264; 77.44134
6.08 cm (2.39 in) 1.0 x10−6 mol Issole, South Séítah Unit
8 29 December 2021
(Sol 307)
SN261 SN053 10464848-6 SN062 6th Perseverance Rock Sample Attempt 1 that was later abandoned due to coring bit dropoff.gif
Pauls (Abandoned sample from this site due to Core Bit Dropoff.)
N/A N/A Pebble-sized debris from the first sample fell into the bit carousel during transfer of the coring bit, which blocked the successful caching of the sample.[78] It was decided to abandon this sample and do a second sampling attempt again. Subsequent tests and measures cleared remaining samples in tube and debris in caching system[79][80] The tube was reused for second sample attempt, which was successful.
9 31 January 2022
(Sol 338)
6th Perseverance Rock Sample Malay (attempt 2).jpg
3.07 cm (1.21 in) 2.7 x10−6 mol
10 7 March 2022
(Sol 372)
SN262 SN172 10464848-6 SN129 Basaltic Andesite Rock Sample 7th Perseverance Rock Sample Hahonih.jpg
Ha'ahóni (aka "Hahonih")
18°27′09″N 77°26′38″E / 18.45242°N 77.44386°E / 18.45242; 77.44386
6.50 cm (2.56 in) 0.98 x10−6mol Ch’ał outcrop(100 m (330 ft) east of Octavia E. Butler Landing), Séítah Unit
11 13 March 2022
(Sol 378)
SN202 SN168 no Cachecam images SN074 8th Perseverance Rock Sample Atsah.jpg
Atsá (aka "Atsah")
6.00 cm (2.36 in) 1.3 x10−6 mol
12 7 July 2022
(Sol 491)
SN188 10464848-4 SN101 Sedimentary Rock Sample 9th Perseverance Rock Sample Swift Run.png
Swift Run
Skinner Ridge
18°24′22″N 77°27′32″E / 18.40617°N 77.45893°E / 18.40617; 77.45893
6.69 cm (2.63 in) Skinner Ridge, Delta Front First Deltaic and First sedimentary sample cached by Perseverance.
13 12 July 2022
(Sol 495)
SN192 10464848-6 SN068 10th Perseverance Rock Sample Skyland.png
5.85 cm (2.30 in)
14 16 July 2022
(Sol 499)
SN205 SN110 10464848-6 SN170 Witness Tube (Empty) N/A N/A N/A Hogwallow Flats,[81] Delta Front This maybe done to clean out any leftover debris during the previous sampling attempts.
15 27 July 2022
(Sol 510)
SN172 10464848-7 SN099 Sedimentary Rock Sample 11th Perseverance Rock Sample Hazeltop.png
Wildcat Ridge
18°24′21″N 77°27′31″E / 18.40589°N 77.45863°E / 18.40589; 77.45863
5.97 cm (2.35 in) Wildcat Ridge, Delta Front
16 3 August 2022
(Sol 517)
SN259 SN177 10464848-5 SN110 12th Perseverance Rock Sample Bearwallow.png
6.24 cm (2.46 in)
17 2 October 2022
(Sol 575)
SN264 10464848-5 SN085 13th Perseverance Rock Sample Shuyak.jpg
Amalik outcrop
77°24′05″N 18°27′03″E / 77.40144°N 18.45073°E / 77.40144; 18.45073
5.55 cm (2.19 in) Amalik outcrop, Delta Front
18 6 October 2022
(Sol 579) - 16 November 2022 (Sol 589)
SN184 SN587 10464848-4 SN030 14th Perseverance Rock Sample Mageik.jpg
7.36 cm (2.90 in) The anomaly first appeared on Oct. 5 after the successful coring of the mission’s 14th sample, called “Mageik,” when the seal assigned to cap the rock-core-filled sample tube did not release as expected from its dispenser.

The process of sealing a sample happens in the rover’s Sampling and Caching System. During sealing, a small robotic arm moves the rock-core-filled tube to one of seven dispensers and presses its open end against a waiting seal. On the 17 previous occasions when a sample tube had been sealed during the mission, the seal was pressed fully into the tube. That allowed the seal to be extracted from the dispenser and the arm to move the seal-tube combination to a different station where they are pressed together, creating a hermetic seal. However, when the sample handling system attempted to dispense a seal in the tube of the Mageik sample, the seal encountered too much resistance and did not come free. The sampling system automatically detected the lack of seal and stored the unsealed tube safely so the tube and sample hardware remain in a stable configuration.

One of the possible causes of the seal’s nondeployment may be that Martian dust adhered to a location on the tube’s interior surface where the dust could impede successful coupling and extraction. To ensure a hermetic seal, the tolerances between tube and seal are, by necessity, extremely small: 0.00008 inches (0.002 mm). The rover’s CacheCam captured images showing light deposits of dust on the tube’s lip, but the camera’s imaging capabilities along the tube’s inner surface are quite limited.

Sealing which was tried again and again with finally completing it on on 16 November 2022 (Sol 589) successfully.[82]

19 14 October 2022
(Sol 586)
SN188 SN153 10464848-5 SN073 Witness Tube (Empty) 15th Perseverance Witness Sample.jpg
N/A N/A The witness tubes do not collect samples but are opened near the sampling location to "witness" the martian environment. The witness tubes go through the motions of sample collection without collecting rock or soil samples and are sealed and cached like martian samples. Witness tubes aim to ensure that any potential Earth contaminants are detected during sample collection. This is to provide the validity of the samples once returned to Earth for analysis. The witness tube was successfully sealed on Sol 586 (October 14, 2022) and placed into storage on Sol 591 (October 19, 2022).[83]
20 24 November 2022
(Sol 626)
SN242 Sedimentary Rock Sample 16th Perseverance Rock Sample.png
Yori's Pass Yori's Pass, Delta Front First Sample from an abrasion patch, abraded earlier on the rock.
Sample Overview Cached Samples
Samples Tubes Cached  (47%)
All Drilled Holes On Mars By Perseverance (except Atsá sample) (Scrollable image)

NASA–ESA concept[edit]

Mars Sample Return Campaign for bringing Mars Rock Samples Back to Earth

The NASA-ESA plan is to return samples using three missions: a sample collection mission (Perseverance), a sample retrieval mission (Sample Retrieval Lander + Mars ascent vehicle + Sample Transfer arm + 2 Ingenuity class helicopters), and a return mission (Earth Return Orbiter).[88][89][90] The mission hopes to resolve the question of whether Mars once harbored life.

Sample collection[edit]

The Mars 2020 mission landed the Perseverance rover, which is storing samples to be returned to Earth later. After consideration, it was decided that given Perseverance's expected longevity, it will be the primary means of transporting samples to Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL).

Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover

Sample retrieval[edit]

Mars Sample Return Program[91]
(Artwork; 27 July 2022)

The sample retrieval mission involves launching a sample return lander in 2028 with the Mars Ascent Vehicle and two Ingenuity class sample recovery helicopters, both of which will be collecting the samples with a tiny robotic arm as a backup for Perseverance. The rover and helicopters will transport the samples to the SRL lander. SRL's robotic arm will be used to extract the samples and load them into the Sample Return Capsule in the Ascent Vehicle.[88] It is planned to land near the Octavia E. Butler Landing site in 2029.

Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV)[edit]

A mock-up of Mars Ascent Vehicle on display stand
VECTOR release sequence

MAV is a 3-meter long, two-stage, solid-fueled rocket that will deliver the collected samples from the surface of Mars to the Earth Return Orbiter. Early in 2022, Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract to partner with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in developing the MAV.[92] It is planned to be catapulted into the air just before it ignites, at a rate of 16 feet (5 meters) per second, to remove the odds of wrong liftoff like slipping or tilting of SRL under rocket's shear weight and exhaust at liftoff. This Vertically Ejected Controlled Tip-off Release (VECTOR) system adds a slight rotation during launch, pitching the rocket up and away from the surface.[93] MAV would enter a 380 km orbit.[94] It will remain stowed inside a cylinder on the SRL and will have a thermal protective coating. The rocket's first stage would be run by a single updated STAR-20 engine burning for 70 seconds, while the second stage would have a single updated STAR-15 engine burning for another 27 seconds. They would be separated by a coast phase, after which the sample container would be released in orbit. As of early 2022, the second stage is planned to be spin-stabilized to save weight in lieu of active guidance, while the Mars samples will result in an unknown payload mass distribution.[94]

MAV is scheduled to be launched in 2028 on board the SRL lander.[88]

Sample return[edit]

Earth Return Orbiter (ERO)[edit]

ERO is an ESA-developed spacecraft.[95][39] It includes the NASA-built Capture and Containment and Return System to rendezvous with the samples delivered by MAV in low Mars orbit (LMO). ERO orbiter is planned to weigh ~6,000 kg (13,000 lb) and has solar arrays that have a wingspan of more than 40 m (130 ft) (these are some of the largest solar panels ever launched into space).

ERO is scheduled to launch on an Ariane 64 rocket[96] in 2027 and arrive at Mars in 2028,[88] using ion propulsion and a separate propulsion element to gradually reach the proper orbit and then rendezvous with the orbiting sample. The MAV's 2nd stage will have a radio beacon that will give controllers the information they need to get the ESA Earth Return Orbiter close enough to the Orbiting Sample to see it through reflective light and capture it for return to earth. The orbiter will retrieve and seal the canisters in orbit and use a NASA-built robotic arm to place the sealed container into an Earth-entry capsule. It will raise its orbit, release the propulsion element, and return to Earth during the 2033 Mars-to-Earth transfer window.

Earth Entry Vehicle (EEV)[edit]

The Capture/Containment and Return System (CCRS) would stow the sample in the EEV. EEV would return to Earth and land passively, without a parachute. The desert sand at the Utah Test and Training Range and shock absorbing materials in the vehicle were planned to protect the samples from impact forces.[97][57][39] EEV is scheduled to land on Earth in 2033.[98]

Components of the Sample Return Landers
Interior design of MAV, First Extraterrestrial Staging Rocket
MAV exterior design
MAV flight plan
Mars Sample Return 2020-2033 Timeline
Artist's concept of Mars sample return orbiter
cross section of the Earth return orbiter
Earth Return Orbiter
capture and containment system

Additional plans[edit]


China has announced plans for a Mars sample-return mission to be called Tianwen-3.[99] The mission would launch in late 2028, with a lander and ascent vehicle on a Long March 5 and an orbiter and return module launched separately on a Long March 3B. Samples would be returned to Earth in July 2031.[100]

A previous plan would have used a large spacecraft that could carry out all mission phases, including sample collection, ascent, orbital rendezvous, and return flight. This would have required the super-heavy-lift Long March 9 launch vehicle.[101][102][103] Another plan involved using Tianwen-1 to cache the samples for retrieval.[104]


France has worked towards a sample return for many years. This included concepts of an extraterrestrial sample curation facility for returned samples, and numerous proposals. They worked on the development of a Mars sample-return orbiter, which would capture and return the samples as part of a joint mission with other countries.[105]


On 9 June 2015, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) unveiled a plan named Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) to retrieve samples from Phobos or Deimos.[106][107] Phobos's orbit is closer to Mars and its surface may have captured particles blasted from Mars.[108] The launch from Earth is planned for September 2024, with a return to Earth in 2029.[109] Japan has also shown interest in participating in an international Mars sample-return mission.


A Russian Mars sample-return mission concept is Mars-Grunt.[110][111][112][113][114] It adopted Fobos-Grunt design heritage.[111] 2011 plans envisioned a two-stage architecture with an orbiter and a lander (but no roving capability),[115] with samples gathered from around the lander by a robotic arm.[110][116]

Back contamination[edit]

Whether life forms exist on Mars is unresolved. Thus, MSR could potentially transfer viable organisms to Earth, resulting in back contamination — the introduction of extraterrestrial organisms into Earth's biosphere. The scientific consensus is that the potential for large-scale effects, either through pathogenesis or ecological disruption, is small.[117][118][119][120][121] Returned samples would be treated as potentially biohazardous until scientists decide the samples are safe. The goal is that the probability of release of a Mars particle is less than one in a million.[118]

The proposed NASA Mars sample-return mission will not be approved by NASA until the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process has been completed.[122] Furthermore, under the terms of Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty and other legal frameworks, were a release of organisms to occur, the releasing nation(s) would be liable for any resultant damages.[123]

The sample-return mission would be tasked with preventing contact between the Martian environment and the exterior of the sample containers.[118][122]

In order to eliminate the risk of parachute failure, the current plan is to use the thermal protection system to cushion the capsule upon impact (at terminal velocity). The sample container would be designed to withstand the force of impact.[122] To receive the returned samples, NASA proposed a custom Biosafety Level 4 containment facility, the Mars Sample-Return Receiving facility (MSRRF).[124][125]

Other scientists and engineers, notably Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, argued in the Journal of Cosmology that contamination risk is functionally zero leaving little need to worry. They cite, among other things, lack of any known incident although trillions of kilograms of material have been exchanged between Mars and Earth via meteorite impacts.[126]

The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) is an advocacy group led by Barry DiGregorio, that campaigns against a Mars sample-return mission. While ICAMSR acknowledges a low probability for biohazards, it considers the proposed containment measures to be unsafe. ICAMSR advocates more in situ studies on Mars, and preliminary biohazard testing at the International Space Station before the samples are brought to Earth.[127][128] DiGregorio accepts the conspiracy theory of a NASA coverup regarding the discovery of microbial life by the 1976 Viking landers.[129][130] DiGregorio also supports a view that several pathogens – such as common viruses – originate in space and probably caused some mass extinctions and pandemics.[131][132] These claims connecting terrestrial disease and extraterrestrial pathogens have been rejected by the scientific community.[131]

NASA–ESA gallery[edit]

Mars sample-return mission - Sampling Process
Sample in drill
Sampling drill
Sample Tube 233
Mars sample-return mission – Sample Tubes
CT Scan (animation)
Witness Sample Tube
Mars sample-return mission
Orbiting sample container (concept; 2020)
Inserting sample tubes into the rover
Cleaning sample tubes
Mars sample-return mission (2020; artist's impression)[133][134]
01. Perseverance rover obtaining samples
02. Perseverance rover storing samples
03. SRL 1 landing pattern
04. SRL unfolded
05. Mars Samples return helicopters deployed by SRL and fetching samples as a backup
06. SRL picking up samples and loading them on MAV for launch
07. Launching from Mars to low Martian Orbit
08. MAV in powered flight after release from vector
09. MAV in coast phase in Low Mars orbit after Main engine cutoff awaiting stage separation and second engine startup
10. Payload Separation thereby Releasing samples for later pickup by the Earth Return Orbiter

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Based on CacheCam Images[clarify]
  2. ^ measured by volume stations
  3. ^ measured by volume stations
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External links[edit]