Stealing Rocks - The Mars Sample Return Mission

Less than two years from now, NASA will be launching its most ambitious mission to Mars yet. Called Mars 2020, it might also mean the start of the Mars Sample Return mission, an insane plan to bring back to Earth pieces of the Red Planet.
In the next decade, the first man-made rocket will take off from Mars 7 photos
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Mars 2020 mission's main goal is to land on the planet the next generation Martian rover. Measuring 10 feet long (3 meters), 9 feet wide (2.7 meters), and 7 feet tall (2.2 meters), the rover is the size of a small car, a bit bigger than the vehicles currently on site. And it will also be used for a new type of mission.

The rover will be tasked, among other things, with exploring, documenting and storing a set of Martian rock samples. That means it will pick them up, shove them into prepared canisters and then let them on the ground here and there, at strategic areas. From there, the future Sample Return mission will to pick them up and bring them home.

For the realization of the Sample Return mission, NASA is working together with its European counterpart, ESA. The two plan to have the Mars Sample Return Mission up and running between 2020 and 2030.


The first step in making this mission a reality is launching the Mars 2020 one. As its name says, the mission is planned to depart Earth in the first year of the next decade, carried away by an Atlas V 541 rocket.

As a twist, the rover that will begin gathering samples to send to Earth will be carrying with it a space rock weighing 8.58 kg, found in Oman in 1999. It is believed this rock originated from Mars and would become part of the rover’s Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument.

The second stage of the mission would be the launch of the Sample Return Lander a few years later. This is supposed to land on Mars, near the 2020 mission landing site. The lander is a platform from which a small ESA machine called the Sample Fetch Rover would depart looking for the recipients left behind by the 2020 rover.

The collected recipients would be carried back to the lander platform and loaded into a single large canister. This basketball-size canister sits in the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the machine that is supposed to take the samples off Mars.

Once it arived in orbit above Mars, MAV's container would rendezvous with the ESA Earth Return Orbiter, which will catch it and then thrust off towards Earth.

A few months after that, once in Earth orbit and before being moved into an Earth entry capsule, the container will be sealed in a biocontainment system to prevent contaminating Earth with unsterilized material.

Once the transfer between the Earth Return Orbiter and the Earth entry capsule is complete, the spacecraft will return to Earth.


The need to bring back Mars samples has arisen because we’re getting increasingly curious about our neighboring planet. Since a manned mission to Mars to study the planet on site is still a long way off, bringing rocks back is the decent way to proceed.

Remotely studying samples on Mars is a limited endeavor, given the fact that the instruments that can be fitted into the machines sent to Mars are not all that inclusive. Right now, planet Earth has three rovers on Mars: Opportunity, its sibling Spirit, both part of the same mission, launched in 2003, and Curiosity, launched in 2011. After losing contact with Spirit in 2010, only Opportunity and Curiosity are left active.

On Earth study of Martian samples would allow the sharing of resources, ESA says, and the testing in the world’s best laboratories. This would of course increase the chances of scientists finding out things never found before about Mars.

ESA plans to provide updates about the mission in 2019, seeking ministerial approval for the missions.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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