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February 26th, 2020

What can the coronavirus outbreak teach us about bringing Mars samples back to Earth?

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

A new virus called SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus that has caused an outbreak of a disease called COVID-19.

Public health groups, such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are still learning about the virus, monitoring the disease it causes, and researching potential ways to stop it. You can read all about the coronavirus and COVID-19 at our sibling site, LiveScience.

But me being me, my mind went straight to Mars. I have long been aware of science fiction’s vision of Earth receiving space souvenirs that carry organisms that might be dangerous to Earth’s fragile biosphere — that’s me, and you, too! Such arrivals could be accidental, or they could be purposeful.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s budget request for NASA supports the development of the Mars sample return mission, a robotic program that would haul back the goods from the Red Planet.

What if such samples turned out to be dangerous, and contagiously so? Are there some Mars-oriented lessons to be learned from COVID-19 and other major infectious diseases?

January 27th, 2020

NASA is hiring someone to help figure out how to get Mars rocks back to Earth — and the position pays at least $182,000

An artist’s concept of the proposed NASA Mars Sample Return mission shows the launch of the Martian samples back to Earth. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is looking to fill an intriguing new role: The space agency needs someone to direct a mission to get the first rocks from Mars back to Earth.

Formally, the job is director of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program, which aims to bring scientists pristine samples of rocks and soil from the red planet to study up close. The first step in that effort is the launch of the soon-to-be-named Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled for July 17. Once on the red planet, the robot is tasked with collecting and storing samples in sealed caches.

But getting them back to Earth is another matter — no mission is planned for that yet.

That’s where the new NASA role comes in.

According to the agency’s description, “the incumbent is responsible for implementation of all MSR program activities, beginning with mission formulation and continuing through design, development, launch, and mission operations.”

The application period closes February 5, 2020.

December 5th, 2019

Life on Mars? Europe commits to groundbreaking mission to bring back rocks to Earth

Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA

It will be one of the most daunting, complicated and, potentially, scientifically rewarding missions ever undertaken to the red planet. Ministers at a recent meeting of the European Space Agency (ESA) have fully committed to plans to collect samples from the surface of Mars and return them to Earth, in a joint effort with NASA. Official approval for the NASA budget to cover this mission is anticipated early next year.

The as yet unnamed mission will be accomplished with a series of launches, beginning in July 2020, with the Mars 2020 rover, which was already going ahead. This is a nuclear powered robotic rover which will make a precise touchdown in the Jezero crater in February, 2021.

In the three years between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions managed to bring back 380 kilograms of lunar samples. Retrieving any samples from the Martian surface, however, is significantly more difficult due to the vast distances involved.

For this reason, the project comprises three separate spacecraft. The first part of the mission is the deployment of the Mars 2020 rover. Even this will be daunting – it is notoriously difficult to land anything on Mars. Aside from conducting a number of scientific investigations of its own, the rover will gather up to 38 individual samples of Martian soil which it will store in sealed containers. The samples will need to be kept safe until at least 2026.

September 17th, 2019

NASA, ESA officials seek formal approvals for Mars sample return mission

Artist’s concept of a Mars sample return mission, including a U.S.-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (left), a European-built Earth Return Orbiter (center), and a NASA-provided Earth Entry Vehicle (right). Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

After crystallizing a partnership to retrieve samples from the surface of Mars and return them to Earth, NASA and European Space Agency officials are seeking government funding commitments before the end of this year to carry out a multibillion-dollar robotic mission that could depart Earth with a pair of rocket launches as soon as 2026.

The Mars sample return mission, if approved, would pick up rock and soil samples collected by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover set for launch next year. The specimens would come back to Earth for detailed analysis in terrestrial laboratories, yielding results that scientists say will paint a far clearer picture of the Martian environment — today and in ancient times — than possible with one-way robotic missions.

A preliminary signal of support came earlier this year came in the White House’s fiscal year 2020 budget request, which proposed $109 million for NASA to work on future Mars missions, including a sample return. That’s after NASA received $50 million to study the sample return effort in 2019.

“The 2020 budget, the president’s recommended budget, included Mars sample return as a recommendation that we begin working on,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a presentation Sept. 10 to the National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences. “We don’t know the status of that through congressional funding yet because we don’t have an appropriations bill yet, but we’re hopeful that there will be some appropriations there so we can move out on this activity.”

NASA unveiled a strategy to pursue a “lean” lower-cost Mars sample return mission in 2017, a plan Glaze said would allow scientists to get their hands on fresh samples from the Martian surface as soon as possible.

But even a lean Mars sample return mission will cost billions of dollars.

May 31st, 2019

Europe to Mars – and back!

Europe has been in orbit around Mars for more than 15 years and is almost a year away from launching its first rover mission, but ambitions are already running high to go one step further: returning a sample from the Red Planet.

In 2016, ESA and Roscomos launched the 3.7 tonne ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the heaviest spacecraft operating at Mars today. Dedicated to analysing the planet’s atmosphere in greater detail than ever, it is making a census of the gases present and to find out if any have a biological or geological origin. The spacecraft is also providing a global map of water distribution in terms of water-ice or water-hydrated minerals in the shallow sub-surface of Mars.

TGO is also a key provider of data-relay services to NASA’s Insight lander and Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. It will be the primary communications relay for the second ExoMars mission, which comprises a rover and surface science platform. It is on track for launching in July 2020 and will arrive at Mars in March 2021. TGO is already getting ready for the new arrival: next month it will make adjustments to its orbit to ensure it will be in the correct position to support the entry, descent and landing of the descent module.

After driving off the surface platform and studying its surrounds, the rover, named Rosalind Franklin, will locate scientifically interesting sites to examine. It will retrieve samples from 2 m below the ground, where they are protected from the harsh radiation that bombards the surface, for analysis in its highly advanced onboard laboratory to search for evidence of life.

May 23rd, 2019

Scientists gear up to look for fossils on Mars

Upcoming missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 might already have the technology to find tiny micro-fossils on the Red Planet.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

When most people imagine hunting for fossils, they probably think of finding dinosaur bones laid down in layers of rock. But the vast majority of life – and therefore fossils – across Earth’s history has been microorganisms. These tiny lifeforms, either plants, animals or fungi, can be smaller than the width of a human hair. But with the right tools, the fossilized records of these tiny creatures reveal insights into the history of a planet. Even planets that aren’t Earth.

A group of Swedish scientists led by Magnus Ivarsson point out in research published May 1 in Frontiers in Earth Science that instruments already planned for upcoming space missions like the Mars 2020 rover could detect tiny fossils on Mars, if they exist. But Mars 2020 can’t analyze every rock it encounters in detail, so the researchers propose a few ways to determine the best places to look on the Red Planet.

March 14th, 2019

Amidst Cuts to NASA, Mars Sample Return May Finally Happen

A high-level overview of NASA’s latest proposed Mars sample return mission.

The President’s budget request for NASA (released on 11 March) defies easy characterization. It includes many welcome proposals: $109 million for a new Mars Sample Return mission, an accelerated launch timeline for Europa Clipper, and funding increases for future human deep-space efforts, to name a few. Yet it also includes a frustrating litany of cuts previously and resoundingly rejected by Congress, attempting again to kill the WFIRST space telescope, multiple Earth Science missions, and the entirety of NASA’s Education/STEM outreach division.

The budget request does contain significant increases for the Administration’s lunar initiative, primarily for the Lunar Gateway project, which would grow from $450 million to $820 million. The Administration proposes additional increases for technology development related to lunar exploration and deep space habitability, though success in these efforts will depend on maintaining growth and controlling program costs in subsequent years.

March 6th, 2019

Researchers Outline Goals for Collecting and Studying Samples from Mars

Image Credit: Thomas Rafalzyk (for European Space Agency) – 2nd International Mars Sample Return conference, Berlin, April 25 – 27, 2018

Returning samples from the surface of Mars has been a high-priority goal of the international Mars exploration community for many years. Although randomly collected samples would be potentially interesting, they would not be sufficient to answer the big questions that have motivated Mars exploration for decades. A new paper published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science describes the results of a major collaboration among 71 scientists from throughout the international science community to define specific scientific objectives for a Mars Sample Return campaign, to describe the critical measurements that would need to be done on returned samples to address the objectives, and to identify the kinds of samples that would be most likely to carry the key information.

The study was sponsored by the International Mars Exploration Working Group. The authors note that the seven proposed objectives provide a framework for demonstrating how the first set of returned Martian samples would impact future Martian science and exploration.

December 3rd, 2018

Five planned missions to Mars

An artist’s impression of SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Rocket. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.

October 5th, 2018

MASCOT 2.0? Mars Moon Rover to Fly on Japanese Mission to Phobos in 2024

An artist’s illustration of Japan’s Mars Moons Exploration (MMX) spacecraft at the small Martian satellite Phobos.
Credit: JAXA/NASA

The hopping asteroid lander MASCOT may be dead, but its bloodline will live on — and get to explore the Mars system a few years from now.

A rover will be incorporated into Japan’s Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) sample-return mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024, Japanese, German and French space officials announced Wednesday (Oct. 3).

Like MASCOT, which explored the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) asteroid Ryugu for 17 hours this week, the new robot will be built by the German Aerospace Center, known by its German acronym DLR, in collaboration with the French space agency, CNES.

MMX aims to return a sample of the 14-mile-wide (22 kilometers) Mars moon Phobos to Earth in 2029. The newly announced rover will facilitate that work and also collect some important data of its own.